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Wednesday, Feb 20, 2002

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Murky times ahead in UP

Rasheeda Bhagat

WITH the exit polls of the second phase of elections in Central Uttar Pradesh only confirming the pre-poll surveys and pointing to a hung Assembly, the only thing clear now is that India's most populous State is moving the national way in the forming of coalition governments.

New Delhi has learnt to live with coalition governments, which have been the outcome of every election held after 1996, when the minority Congress government run by the politically astute Mr P. V. Narasimha Rao completed its five-year term. But even earlier, the Centre had sampled coalition governments in different avatars after the Emergency. That Uttar Pradesh seems to be moving the Central government way is only a reflection of the fractured patronage our political parties enjoy, thanks to the divisive politics preached and practised by our politicians.

The verdict of this election, based on the analysis of trends, pre-poll surveys and exit polls done during the first two stages of polling — in Western and central UP, accounting for 237 seats — is likely to be a hung Assembly. And, unless there is a huge surprise sprung by the UP voters at the last minute, proving all the pollsters wrong, we will see yet another coalition government in Lucknow. On February 21, the third and last phase of the election will be held, when over 4.22 crore voters will cast their franchise for the remaining 166 of the total 403 seats in the State.

The polling for the Mirzapur Lok Sabha seat, which fell vacant after the death of the Samajwadi Party MP, Phoolan Devi, will also be held the same day. One might point out that there is no harm in a hung Assembly, resulting in a coalition government for, after all, the long years of single-party governments formed by the Congress have not exactly converted UP into a paradise. On the contrary, it continues to rank among the worst regions in the country, on several parameters, particularly development. Convincing arguments were made to break up this State into two to three smaller States, so that the new entities no longer look anything like the parent!

But reverting to the election on hand and coalition governments, what is worrying is the bitterness and acrimony that has crept into the campaign, as politicians seek to divide the electorate along the lines of religion, caste, community and class. Not to mention the pre-election tantrums thrown by the Vishwa Hindu Parishad, as it pressed for the construction of the Ram temple in Ayodhya.

With the exit poll results pointing to the BJP and its allies failing to form the government, the UP Chief Minister, Mr Rajnath Singh, whose political future depends on how the BJP fares in the election, has already shown his anger at the pre-poll surveys and exit polls. Declaring them as "planted" and having "agendas of their own" he has stated that, if he had his way, he would get all such polls banned.

Well, if the people of India had their way, they would get a certain class of politician banned!

Anyway, let's take a look at the latest exit polls that have so angered the BJP's star candidate in UP. The second round of polls, following Monday's voting for 145 seats in central UP, has not been favourable to the BJP. While the exit polls in the first round, in western UP, gave the edge to the BJP, the second round found it yielding ground to the SP. The state-run Doordarshan exit poll — computing the finding of the exit polls in the first and second rounds of polling — gave 87 of the 237 seats to the SP, and only 72 to the BJP. The Zee television poll was kinder, giving both parties 82 seats each, whereas Aaj Tak (the television channel run by the India Today group), put the BJP ahead, with 83 seats, compared to 73 for the Samajwadi Party.

With the Congress not even in the reckoning, and it being almost certain that no single group is likely to get a majority, the role of the kingmaker, albeit with a difference, goes to the Bahujan Samaj Party and its leader, Ms Mayawati. The difference is that, instead of having a say in who will be king, Ms Mayawati's one-point agenda may be that she would be willing to support any government that would anoint her the chief minister of Uttar Pradesh.

The different exit polls have given her between 48 and 61 seats after the first two rounds of polling. Add to this what the party would pick up in the final phase, and the total would be a respectable enough number to give BSP the power to declare its leader the Chief Minister.

Also, knowing the BSP bahenji's aversion for the SP chief, Mr Mulayam Singh Yadav — remember the gory details of the story she loves telling about how she was attacked at the State's guest house in Lucknow a few years ago by "Mulayam Singhji ke goonde (thugs)" — an alliance between the SP and the BSP is inconceivable. Unless the BJP refuses to concede the chief minister's gaddi to the lady and Mr Mulayam Singh bites the bullet and does so. At the moment this is a bizarre possibility.

So, for the moment, a tie-up between the BJP and its allies, and the BSP is on the cards. Unless the Congress(I) springs a surprise and puts up a much better show than most surveys have failed to predict. In which case it would be only too happy to help the SP cobble together a slender majority.

Perhaps the Congress itself does not expect this pleasant surprise. How else can one explain its president, Ms Sonia Gandhi, needling Mr Mulayam Singh Yadav at the very outset of her campaign in UP? She reminded the electorate that it was the Yadav neta who had stood between them and a "secular government" in Delhi in April 1999, when the Vajpayee government fell by a mere vote. Not to take this reminder lying down, the UP strongman retorted by asking her to "keep quiet" or else he would expose her.

But this exchange pales into insignificance compared to the latest charge hurled by Mr Rajnath Singh against Mr Mulayam Singh Yadav.

Revealing that he has been more than a little irked by the findings of the surveys and exit polls, and not content with damning them, he has accused his arch-rival, shown by these surveys to be in a neck-to-neck race with him, of complicity in the murder of his political protégé, Phoolan Devi.

Of course, Mr Mulayam Singh Yadav's opponents, particularly the BJP, have been making these insinuations ever since the former dacoit was gunned down outside her house in a high-security area in New Delhi. But, as the moment of reckoning draws nearer, the velvet gloves are off, and the netas are pulling no punches.

This accusation only brings to mind the adage that those in glass houses must refrain from throwing stones. Along with Bihar, UP's record is notorious, in that its legislature and Cabinet `boast' members accused of criminal charges and facing court cases.

One BJP leader after another has waxed eloquent about how these did not belong to the BJP family but were elected on tickets given by their allies, who happened to be in the coalition. But any number of lectures on the compulsions of coalition politics cannot make the electorate swallow the BJP's claim that it is a party with a difference.

The most frightening thing is that, after February 24, when the results will be out and the race for forming the government begins, we will have to listen to more such lectures.

Unfortunately, there is no single party in the race that will have either the decency or the guts to say: "No, we cannot make such a compromise and, hence, are bowing out of the race."

So, get ready for yet another chapter of unseemly politics in the Hindi heartland.

(Response can be sent to rasheeda@thehindu.co.in)

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