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State elections — Where Gujarat and Kashmir are on level

Rasheeda Bhagat

ONE of the greatest ironies in our political set-up is that it is the politicians themselves who, most often, are trapped in the webs they weave. It is thus that both the major players on the political stage — the BJP and the Congress(I) — have been caught in a bind on the forthcoming elections to the two troubled States of Jammu and Kashmir and Gujarat.

The two States may be different from each other as chalk and cheese — the former is grappling with poverty and under-development because of the scourge of terrorism, and the latter is an industrial powerhouse, embodying the Gujarati spirit of entrepreneurship. But the recent communal holocaust in Gujarat has put the two States on a level plane.And now both the States are due for elections. In J&K, the NDA Government would love to hold elections under President's rule. In more ways than one it would be the right thing to do, considering the State's pathetic track record in holding free and fair elections. The National Conference, an ally of Mr Vajpayee's NDA government at the Centre, is a past master at the game of rigging polls and this is no big secret in the Valley. The J&K Chief Minister, Dr Farooq Abdullah, is, however, unlikely to take kindly to elections under Governor's rule, and may ask why the BJP-led Government is not doing the same in Gujarat.

While this would leave the BJP red-faced, the Congress(I) chief, Mrs Sonia Gandhi, can hardly capitalise on this development. Though the State Congress leaders have been demanding elections under President's rule, all of a sudden the Congress(I) has gone soft on its earlier stand that a free and fair election in Gujarat cannot be held under Mr Narendra Modi's leadership, though it might be caretaker in nature. If the Congress(I) pushes too hard for President's rule in Gujarat, the BJP can turn around and say that this should also be the case when several of the Congress(I)-ruled States hit the poll trail next year. In fact, the BJP General Secretary and Rajya Sabha MP from Gujarat, Mr Arun Jaitley, has already thrown the gauntlet at the Congress(I) high command on this issue.

Another hot topic for debate is the timing of the Gujarat election. The Prime Minister, Mr Atal Bihari Vajpayee, had shot down Mr Modi's game-plan to dissolve the State Assembly soon after the Godhra tragedy and its aftermath and call for elections. The Food Minister, Mr Shanta Kumar, made the mistake of explaining why this could not be done — "You cannot seek votes on a heap of corpses" — and had to apologise for it too.

But now that a decent period of mourning has gone by, the BJP sees no harm in pressuring the Election Commission to announce elections by September. It does not want the EC to club the polls in Gujarat with those in J&K in October because, apart from the Navratri season — a big festival in Gujarat — this would raise too many uncomfortable comparisons about President's rule and the like.

As for Mr Modi himself, he seems rather uncomfortable of late. Not surprising, because, first of all, his gaurav yatra was given a hasty burial with Mr Vajpayee acting quickly on the concerns expressed by the Human Rights Commission and eminent citizens that this could ignite the simmering communal discontent all over again.

Close on its heels came Ms Sonia Gandhi's masterly stroke to appoint his bete noir and former companion in the Sangh Parivar, Mr Shankarsinh Vaghela, as the president of the PCC in Gujarat. This was certainly not good news for Mr Modi, as Mr Vaghela, who had played a great role in building up the BJP from the grassroots in Gujarat, fell out with him during the Keshubhai Patel regime of 1996.

Accusing Mr Modi, then the BJP general secretary, of deliberately sidelining him, he had exited the party by splitting it vertically, floating his own Rashtriya Janata Party and forming the government in Gujarat with support from the Congress(I). But after losing the last elections, eventually he merged his party with the Congress(I) in 1999.

But in the faction-ridden Congress, Mr Vaghela has had to sit out his turn before emerging on top. Political analysts in Gujarat point out that no Opposition politician can make Mr Modi as insecure as can Mr Vaghela. It is a tribute to Mr Vaghela's following in Gujarat that the Chief Minister dissolved the Assembly within three days of his appointment as the PCC chief and the grapevine has it that he was able to convince the BJP high command that the less time his arch rival got to reorganise the Congress before the polls the better. Last week, he also hurriedly managed to get back into the BJP fold some of Mr Vaghela's staunch aides.

The other man who can swing the BJP's fortunes either way is the former chief minister of Gujarat, Mr Keshubhai Patel, who was given such a rough time by the BJP leadership last year and ultimately replaced by Mr Modi. He is still smarting under the insult and flatly refused a Cabinet berth offered to him at Delhi in lieu of the Gujarat chief ministership.

Though his health might rule out his return to active politics, it has not stopped a section of the Gujarat BJP demanding that he be made President of the party's State unit. Obviously, this section hopes that this would be a fitting response from the BJP to the Congress(I)'s decision to bring in Mr Vaghela as its State unit chief.

In Kashmir, Dr Farooq Abdullah has changed his original resolve to say goodbye to State politics and move to New Delhi. In a country where dynasty politics is firmly entrenched in the political fabric, he has handed over the reins of his party to his son, Mr Omar Abdullah.

The original plan was that the NC would seek the people's votes for an NC government under Mr Omar's leadership. But last week there were clear indications that he is shying away from this responsibility. Whether this is because he has sensed a hostility or lukewarm response to the NC in the State, or because he is genuinely concerned about the charges of corruption against many ministers in his father's Cabinet, is a matter of judgement. But for the moment, Kashmiris will have to either accept or reject the leadership of his father.

All eyes are now on the EC. Will it give in to the BJP pressure and announce early polls in Gujarat or will it insist on holding elections in both the States only in October? Meanwhile, the Government has not done this country proud by refusing visas to Amnesty International, which wanted to send a team to investigate and assess the situation in Gujarat.

If Mr Modi is as innocent as the BJP leaders and some of their allies keep telling us all the time, what are they afraid of? Of course, the whole of Gujarat cannot be whitewashed, as the Shah Alam camp in Ahmedabad was, for Mr Vajpayee's visit.

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

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