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From Tehelka Magazine, Vol 8, Issue 14, Dated 09 Apr 2011
CURRENT AFFAIRS  
ASSEMBLY ELECTIONS

POLL VAULT 2011

1. WEST BENGAL

If Left loses, Congress will not gain

Despite the alliance with Mamata, the party is likely to stagnate, reports

BY PARTHA DASGUPTA

The third force Rahul Gandhi with Pranab Mukherjee and WB State Congress President Manas Bhunia during a campaign

Photo:Pintu Pradhan

WHAT DO you call the twig that snaps from the trunk of a tree, yet blows the trunk into oblivion? In West Bengal, that phenomenal twig is called Mamata Banerjee, who broke away from the Congress and formed her own party with grassroots workers, literally naming the outfit Trinamool (grassroots) Congress (TMC). After just 13 years, she threatens to obliterate her political alma mater in a state that is poised to catapult her fledgling party to power.

The ruling Left is set to lose political power in West Bengal, but so is the Congress. Chances are, the Left will not be totally irrelevant in the next five years, but the Congress might just be.

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After weeks of debates, deliberations and diatribe, the TMC and Congress have arrived at a deal, which is, for all practical purposes, a seat-sharing arrangement. Egged on by the vocal detractors of Mamata like Adhir Chowdhury, Deepa Dasmunsi, Shankar Singh among others, the Congress began negotiations with a demand for 98 seats and remained stubborn for weeks. To cut a long story short, the national party eventually got 65 — one more than what Mamata had offered them from the start. The battle came to an end only when Sonia Gandhi saw sense and demonstrated sanity by agreeing to take what — or whatever — was on offer.

The state Congress has long vegetated politically. A major reason for Mamata’s breaking ranks with the party was that it did little to upset, let alone unsettle, the communists. That was in the last century. Nothing much has changed in the new millennium. The Congress was nowhere to be seen during the heady days of the Singur- Nandigram movement that altered the political topography of West Bengal.

The compulsions of having 61 Left MPs supporting the minority UPA-1 government were apparent. But even after UPA-2 was formed in 2009 without the support of the Left, the state unit remained a group of the unfit, picked from the unwilling, to do the unnecessary. The political hibernation of the Congress seems perennial.

“What we observed during the entire process of bargaining points to the fact that the state Congress leadership is not only zero, but sub-zero,” says former PCC chief and state INTUC president Pradip Bhattacharya. “We did not assess our strengths and weaknesses. We had an imaginary strategy, if any, and we talked too much. It is possible that we will improve on the tally of 21 from the 2006 polls (when it fielded 262 candidates) on the strength of the alliance, but it will be a weaker party than ever before.”

“I welcome the candidature of fresh faces but if that is at the expense of the state INTUC president, it is a sad commentary on the strategies of a party” says Bhattacharya, who has been denied a ticket this time.

Twenty-two of the 65 seats that the Congress is fighting are “hopeless” according to even die-hard Congress supporters. Therefore, to improve on the 2006 tally, the Congress has to win more than 50 percent of the remaining 43 seats. It could do that but only on borrowed strength and political ammunition from the TMC.

22 of the 65 seats that the Congress is fighting are hopeless, say die-hard supporters

“I don’t see the Congress having any more impact after the polls than it has now,” says Amiyo Chaudhuri, renowned psephologist and Fellow of the Maulana Abul Kalam Azad Institute of Asian Studies. “They used to have a stronghold over only three districts: Malda, Murshidabad and Dinajpur (North) and in the Scheduled Caste-dominated areas of Cooch Behar. Of late, Mamata has eaten into this traditional support base of the Congress. Even if the Congress does well riding on the paribartan wave and by joining the TMC bandwagon, I do not see them being kingmakers after the polls.”

The 2006 election saw the Left get 50.12 percent of the votes against 49.88 percent of the combined Opposition — a difference of a meagre 0.24 percent. However, they got 235 out of 294 seats because of a split in the Opposition.

“The alliance will ensure that 2006 will not be repeated this time,” says Chaudhuri. “Times have changed. West Bengal before and after Nandigram are two different states. For me, double the 2001 tally for the alliance is the minimum this time. A reasonable assumption is between 180 and 220 seats for the alliance. In any case, the TMC looks good enough to win an absolute majority on its own that would render the Congress irrelevant anyway.”

CPM CENTRAL committee member Mohammed Salim quips, “The state Congress has reached its nadir. It is absolutely bankrupt... both politically and organisationally. So will the TMC be very soon,” he says. “After all, the political culture is the same in both parties. Lumpens are their constituency and self-seeking individuals with feudal mindsets their masters. I see superannuated Congress leaders guarding a dilapidated mansion for some time, eventually selling off the expensive items to the TMC. TMC’s gain is Congress’ loss.”

That the Left will go looks a certainty, but so does the possibility of the Congress becoming functionally extinct. The ballot box promises to throw up a single winner: Mamata, who looks set to defeat not only the party in power, but also the party that will bring her to power.

Partha Dasgupta is Correspondent with Tehelka
partha@tehelka.com


2. ASSAM

The dirty tricks bag

The NC Hills scam kingpin is the ‘poorest’ candidate, according to his affidavit given to the EC

BY RATNADIP CHOUDHURY

Mohet Hojai, prime accused in the infamous Rs 1,000 crore North Cachar (NC) Hills scam, is now contesting the Assembly elections from the Halflong seat in the hill district of Dima Hasao, earlier known as NC Hills. Not only that, the Autonomous State Demand Committee candidate is the ‘poorest’ candidate in the polls going by the affidavit he submitted to the Election Commission (EC). In his affidavit, Mohet says he has no residential property or agricultural land. All he claims to own is a Maruti car under his wife’s name. It further states that his schoolteacher wife has Rs 40,000 in cash, while he has Rs 12,557 and Rs 27,607 in two SBI accounts. The National Investigation Agency (NIA) is probing the multi-crore scam that put Hojai behind bars in 2009, from where he filed his nomination. The former chief executive member of the North Cachar Autonomous Hills Council (NCHAC) is alleged to have diverted funds for development of the region to the coffers of the dreaded terror outfit, the Dima Halim Daogah (DHD-Jewel Garlosa faction). The NIA chargesheet says he is a member of DHD(J) but his affidavit claims he is a ‘social activist’.

Ratnadip Choudhury is a Principal Correspondent with Tehelka.
ratnadip@tehelka.com


3. TAMIL NADU

Amma gets a God complex

Jayalalithaa has done an about-turn on her approach to the temple town of Srirangam, reports SAI MANISH

Idol worship Jayalalithaa files her nomination papers for the TN election

Photo:Martil Loutis

ALLIES AND opponents agree on two things about AIADMK supremo J Jayalalithaa. First, that she is at her arrogant worst in the run-up to the elections — an arrogance driven by astrological predictions that a stint at the helm for the next five years is hers for the taking. Second, that Amma’s victory in Srirangam is a foregone conclusion. With that in mind, Jaya is confidently promising intervention in religious matters, an issue she has burned her fingers with in the past.

On the day she kicked off her campaign in Srirangam, she promised to resolve a longstanding religious dispute in the temple town, something that her predecessors have always shied away from. Addressing a massive gathering from atop her white campaign van, she made it clear that she would relax restrictions on the sale of land around the Ranganathaswamy temple in Srirangam, an attempt to resolve a century-old dispute.

In tune with the cosmos, Srirangam is divided into seven concentric zones called prakaras, each separated by a wall. The land in the first four prakaras belongs to the temple and is believed to be inhabited by the descendants of the 32 learned Brahmins who were gifted land to start a colony of Sanskrit learning in 1307. The last three, covering 320 acres, a large area of the town, are also being claimed by the temple board. Jaya has promised to change that if the people vote her to power. If that happens, it would undermine the powers of the Ranganathaswamy temple management that receives donations from Vaishnavites all over the world.

Officials of the temple say on condition of anonymity: “The case is pending in the Supreme Court and we are hoping for an amicable solution. Jayalalithaa should have steered clear of this issue.” The fear stems from Jaya’s move to clamp down on the spiritual head of the Kanchi Mutt, Swami Jayendra Saraswati, when she was chief minister in 2004. The Kanchi seer was questioned in an assault and murder case over a duration of two years and even had to spend time behind bars, prompting even the then PM Atal Bihari Vajpayee to ask Amma to take it easy.

THE BACKLASH against the ‘Brahmanical order’ was prompted by her whitewash in the 2004 Parliamentary polls and was an attempt to shrug off the image of being a BJP supporter. Jaya made the battle a personal one and was once even photographed sitting on a pedestal above the Kanchi seer, an act unacceptable to the Swami’s followers, bordering on sacrilege. The attempt to shed the saffron image is what worries people in Srirangam, where matters of religion dictate every aspect of life. Mannivanan, 42, owns a coffee grinding business in the temple town and lives in a 100-year-old house on East Chitra Street. He sounds optimistic. “I am not sure if she should have raised the issue,” he says. “We live peacefully here and have our own way of settling disputes. I have full belief in the temple authorities.”

Some may fear that this peaceful town would face turmoil if the former CM comes to power and decides to meddle in the affairs of the temple but Mannivanan declares openly, “I have always voted for the AIADMK and even this time I will vote for Amma. Unlike the present CM M Karunanidhi, at least she does not go around unveiling statues of Periyar in front of temples.”

The native of Srirangam is back to where she belongs. And given her approach to all things pertaining to god and religion, there is already a sense of unease in the air in the lovely temple town of Srirangam on the banks of the Cauvery.

Sai Manish is a Correspondent with Tehelka.
sai.manish@tehelka.com


4. KERALA

Kodiyeri Balakrishnan

CPM Politburo member and home minister of Kerala reports JEEMON JACOB

The 57-year-old, whose candidature in Thalassery is seen as a move to deny VS Achuthanandan a second term, says Congress money power won’t work

Photo: Rajesh

1. You have raised the issue of the Congress using black money in election campaigns. On what basis?
It is evident from the style of the Congress campaigns that a huge amount of black money is being pumped into them. Why have they hired helicopters? Because they have that kind of money and secondly, they are scared of inconvenient questions that people might ask them if they travel on the road. Travelling by air is the best way to avoid both the people and their questions. Manikumar Subba, the lottery king, is sponsoring the Congress in the election. He has openly admitted that he is donating Rs 4,000 crore annually to the party.

2.But, the EC has allowed political parties to hire helicopters for campaigns. Why are you bothered?
The excess bothers us. Kerala has never seen this kind of money being used for election campaigns. But the people are intelligent, and they understand the hidden agenda of the Congress and their sponsors. We will campaign against these evil forces and expose them.

3. Hasn’t the infighting in the CPM disappointed the cadres?
It’s a media creation. The media floats these stories with their own agenda, and when they are proven wrong, they come up with another one. Some media houses are agents of the Congress and are always ready to run false stories against the CPM. Paid news doesn’t bother us.

The birds will stay at home

Helicopter rental companies are going through a lean period this election, says SAMIRAN SAHA

FOR HELICOPTER charter companies, elections usually mean big business. Not this time, though. The five states headed for polls will see very limited use of the flying machine, which also doubles up as a crowd puller.

Photo : AP

“Kerala and West Bengal are Left-ruled states. Political leaders choose to travel by road to connect with the electorate rather than fly,” observed Colonel (retd) Jayanth Poovaiah of Bengaluru-based Deccan Charters. Poovaiah’s company has rented out just two choppers — a fiveseater Bell 230 and a seven-seater Bell 407 — which would be in operation in Assam as against five helicopters in the 2009 Lok Sabha poll. Hiring a Bell 230 costs Rs 1.20 lakh per hour of flying whereas one has to shell out Rs 70-80,000 per hour to rent a Bell 407.

The business has also become competitive. From just five operators in 2009, there are as many as 40 today, leading rents to nosedive and profits to plunge. “In the last general elections, we could not cater to the huge demand for helicopters from political parties,” says an operator on request of anonymity. “In 2009, the minimum rates were Rs 95,000 per hour to charter a four-seater helicopter but with regional players coming into the business the rentals are down to Rs 60,000 per hour.”

According to the MP-based operator, both the Congress and the BJP have chartered three helicopters each for touring. “Both have booked helicopters for 75-100 hours. Most of the flying will be in Assam and there too we won’t be logging more than 30 minutes per flight as behind every hill lies an Assembly constituency, thus reducing the flying time considerably,” the operator added.

Ankur Bhatia, ED, Bird Group explains that the demand is always less during Assembly election is less. “The few helicopters that have been hired by political parties are primarily to ferry senior leaders and not regional satraps,” he says.

Samiran Saha is Assistant Editor, Business with Tehelka
samiran@tehelka.com


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From Tehelka Magazine, Vol 8, Issue 14, Dated 09 Apr 2011
 
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