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India's National Magazine
From the publishers of THE HINDU

Vol. 15 :: No. 06 :: Mar. 21 - Apr. 3, 1998


ELECTIONS '98

The Assembly round

The Assembly election results from five States present a mixed political picture.

GUJARAT

LOK SABHA
Total seats     26
BJP             19
Congress(I)      7

ASSEMBLY 
Total seats     182
BJP             117
Congress(I)      53
RJP               4
Janata Dal        4
Samajwadi Party   1
Independents      3

THE Bharatiya Janata Party has consolidated its position in Gujarat by winning 117 of the 182 Assembly seats and 19 of the 26 Lok Sabha seats. An absolute majority for the BJP in the Assembly was never in doubt as most of the constituencies witnessed triangular contests among the BJP, the Congress (I) and the Rashtriya Janata Party. A pro-BJP sentiment was evident among the voters, and this was the result of the toppling of its two governments by party rebels with the help of the Congress(I) since the last Assembly elections in 1995.

The BJP's tally in the Assembly is four lower than its 1995 figure. But the party has made up for this loss by winning 19 seats in the parliamentary elections, three more than in the last elections. It not only retained all the 16 Lok Sabha seats it won in 1996, but took from the Congress(I) the Surendranagar, Banaskantha and Baroda seats. In Surendranagar, the BJP's Bhavnaben Dave defeated the Congress(I)'s Sanat Mehta by a margin of 9,661 votes despite the fact that the RJP did not field a candidate against Mehta as he had favoured a Congress-RJP alliance.

In Banaskantha, another Congress(I) strongman, B.K. Gadhvi, who had pressured the party to have seat adjustments with the RJP, lost to the BJP's Parathibhai Chaudhari by a margin of 84,755 votes. The RJP did not field a candidate in this constituency either. The outcome in these two seats indicates that even if the Congress(I) and the RJP had worked out an understanding, they could not have halted the BJP's march.

In Baroda, the BJP's Jayaben Thakkar defeated Youth Congress president Satyajitsinh Gaekwad by a margin of 52,417 votes. Gaekwad had won the seat in 1996 by a margin of just 17 votes, That the RJP essentially targeted the Congress(I)'s support base has been established in many constituencies. However, a seat-sharing arrangement between the two parties would not have altered the results as the RJP did not have any vote bank to speak of that could be transferred to the Congress (I).

The RJP secured about 12 per cent of the valid votes polled. The party's State president, Madhusudan Mistry, claimed that its candidates came second in 23 Assembly constituencies and in two Lok Sabha constituencies. He also stated that the party lost four Assembly seats by a margin of less than 1,000 votes. Overall, the RJP had contested 39 Lok Sabha seats, including 20 in Gujarat.

PARAS SHAH
Keshubhai Patel being sworn in Chief Minister by Governor Krishnapal Singh in Gandhinagar on March 4.

Mistry said that an attempt would be made to convince the people about the party's 'national' character, as there appeared to be no scope for a regional party in Gujarat's politics. Mistry disagrees with the suggestion that the RJP made a mistake in not aligning itself with the Congress(I). He said: "The Congress(I) did not reciprocate our gesture and was unreasonable. By going it alone, the Congress(I) was able to add only nine Assembly seats to its strength. We will now concentrate on making our party broad-based". Out of the 28 RJP MLAs in the previous Assembly, only two were re-elected. The party won four seats. Former Chief Minister Dilip Parikh himself lost to the BJP's Bharat Pandya in Dhanduka by a margin of over 15,000 votes. This is the first time in Gujarat's electoral history that an incumbent Chief Minister has not been re-elected.

Yet, the RJP does not think that the picture is dismal. Mistry draws hope from the fact that the number of votes polled by the BJP had declined in 68 Assembly constituencies. In 24 Assembly seats, the BJP's victory margins have come down. The major failure of the RJP was that it did not project its achievements while in office to the electorate, according to Mistry. He admits that there was a general feeling among the voters that the BJP deserved a chance, but refused to accept that it constituted sympathy factor.

Pradesh Congress(I) Committee president C.D. Patel, who lost the Jalalpore Assembly seat in Surat district to the BJP's R.C. Patel, said that it was necessary to bring down the BJP Government in 1996 in order to expose the party's stability platform. However, he admitted that the Congress(I) made a mistake in supporting the Shankersinh Vaghela Government. "Although we gained only a few Assembly seats, we are satisfied that we can now perform the role of the Opposition better," he said.

The Janata Dal opened its account in the Assembly with four seats, but the RJP (Atma Ram) group led by Atma Ram Patel, which merged with the Janata Dal after the BJP denied its members the ticket, could not get any of its members elected.

The elections did not witness any polarisation on the caste lines, as expected by Vaghela. The RJP had banked heavily on the support of Kshatriyas. Vaghela had projected himself as a Kshatriya who brought down the Government led by a Patel (Keshubhai). The BJP appears to have received support from all sections of society. However, the Patel community seems to have voted with a vengeance to restore Keshubhai Patel to the Chief Minister's office.

Although Congress(I) Legislature Party leader Amarsinh Choudhary won the Khedbrahma Assembly seat, many party veterans could not retain their seats. Apart from C.D.Patel, the Congress(I)'s other losers were former Chief Minister Chhabildas Mehta in the Mahuva Assembly constituency, former PCC president Prabodh Rawal in the Asarwa Assembly constituency in Ahmedabad city and former Deputy Chief Minister Narhari Amin in the Sabarmati Assembly constituency. The BJP's notable losers included Nalin Bhatt in Padra and Bhupendrasinh Chudasma (identified as a "Khajuria" by the loyalists) in Dholka.

According to C.D. Patel, the Congress(I) was seen as having associated itself with Vaghela and, as a result, it became a victim of the anti-establishment vote. He suggested that the party high command's dithering over the question of an alliance with the RJP also worked to the Congress(I)'s disadvantage.

However, many Congress(I) leaders feel that the verdict was not as decisive as it appeared because the BJP's victory margins were narrow. Groupism and tensions between the loyalists and the 'ambivalent' MLAs did not affect the BJP's performance to the extent to which it was feared during the run-up to the elections.

Keshubhai Patel was sworn in Chief Minister on March 4. He postponed the formation of his Ministry until after the Holi festival. In 1995, Keshubhai Patel assumed office during the 'Holastak' days preceding the Holi festival. His Ministry was toppled within seven months following a revolt by Vaghela. This time, Keshubhai Patel has assumed office well before "Holastak". Time alone will tell whether an auspicious beginning would help him complete his term.


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