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Uttar Pradesh headed for hung Assembly -- Cong bags Punjab, Uttaranchal

Sukumar Muralidharan

NEW DELHI, Feb. 24

AS Uttar Pradesh headed for a hung Assembly and the Congress registered unequivocal majorities in Punjab and Uttaranchal, the senior leadership of the BJP met here today to take stock of the impact the recent round of State Assembly elections would have on the stability of the Central Government. The tactical course that the BJP will pursue in Uttar Pradesh is expected to depend upon the assessment that emerges from this meeting.

Mr Vishnu Kant Shastri, Governor of Uttar Pradesh, meanwhile, indicated that he does not contemplate any specific timeframe for completing the exercise of swearing in a new ministry in the State. He also expressed the view that he is not bound by the convention of giving the party with the largest number of seats the first chance at forming a Government. Stability, he has indicated, will be a crucial criterion and any party or combination of parties that stakes a claim to ministry formation should provide credible evidence of a legislative majority.

Mr Mulayam Singh Yadav, President of the Samajwadi Party, left here for Lucknow this evening. With his party expected to win over 150 seats in the 403-member UP House, Mr Yadav is a clear front-runner for forming a new Government. He faces an uphill task in bridging the deficit of around 50 seats that he faces in cobbling together a legislative majority. Though relations have been embittered in recent years and particularly during the recent election campaign, the Congress is viewed as a prospective partner of the SP. But even if it were to overcome the reservations within its ranks, the Congress, with under 30 seats, would still leave the SP well short of a majority.

Next to the SP, the big winner in UP is the Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP), which has confounded predictions to register a tally that could be in the region of 90 seats. The BSP leader Ms Mayawati has twice before, in brief tenures, been Chief Minister of the State. On both occasions she was propped up by the BJP, the second time on the basis of an understanding on alternating as Chief Minister at six-month intervals, with a BJP nominee.

Neither of the previous two arrangements between the BSP and the BJP has managed to survive beyond a few months. But observers think that in the current situation there is likely to be a fresh stimulus for the two parties to arrive at an accommodation from their common interest in keeping Mr Yadav out of power.

Party spokespersons from both sides are officially discounting suggestions that negotiations have already begun. But observers in the State are convinced that contacts have been underway between the leaderships of the two parties all through the election campaign.

Both parties are likely to suffer serious internal schisms in their effort to renew their political engagement. A powerful section within the BJP, associated with incumbent Chief Minister, Mr Rajnath Singh, is believed to favour the option of sitting in opposition and seeking to capitalise on the anti-incumbency advantage in the next elections. This section is believed to derive some strength from the assessment of the national leadership of the party, that the UP outcome will not have any immediate repercussions on the stability of the Atal Bihari Vajpayee Government at the Centre.

In both Punjab and Uttaranchal, the results are being read as a clear-cut manifestation of the incumbency disadvantage. In relation to its senior coalition partner, the Shiromani Akali Dal, the BJP has suffered disproportionately in Punjab, having been reduced to less than a fifth of its strength in the outgoing assembly. The SAD for its part has retained ground in many of its traditional bastions, despite opinion surveys and exit polls that predicted a rout.

Against the predictions made by the exit polls, the Congress majority is over 20 seats short. The new Chief Minister, widely expected to be Punjab Pradesh Congress president, Capt Amarinder Singh, will however, have a comfortable enough majority to provide a stable Government.

There is considerable speculation about the Congress' chief ministerial nominee for Uttaranchal. Party spokespersons have said that the Chief Minister need not necessarily come from within the ranks of the elected legislators

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