Tuesday, February 12, 2002, Chandigarh, India


M A I N   N E W S

Congress has a definite edge
Hari Jaisingh

Chandigarh, February 11
A whistlestop tour of Punjab gives a clear indication that the Congress enjoys a definite edge vis-a-vis the SAD-BJP alliance in the State Assembly elections scheduled for February 13. However, the contest in several constituencies is going to be close. The final tally will depend on local factors and the ability of candidates to mobilise their supporters to cast votes. Amidst visible public enthusiasm, anti-incumbency is a major factor this time to the advantage of the Congress.

Campaigning was at its peak when I travelled from Lambi to Muktsar, Talwandi, Zira, Tarn Taran, Amritsar to Jalandhar and Ludhiana. At Rayya on Sunday I saw a large number of tractor-trailers full of men and women heading for a Congress rally. They were not a hired lot, but represented a cross-section of the population, especially those belonging to the Scheduled Castes and Backward Classes. Well-placed Jat Sikhs were in their cars. This in itself was a clear pointer to the new political wind blowing in Punjab.

The people's preference for change is obvious. I asked an active Congress worker at Phagwara: "Will the Congress be able to give a corruption-free regime, if voted to power?" His honest answer was: "I cannot guarantee this."

Power corrupts. Absolute power corrupts absolutely. Since elections have become a big business, this business of power is seen as a money-making device. To reverse this process is not an easy task. This will require radical electoral reforms. The country's leadership does not yet seem ready for this. The Election Commission as a watchdog body can, at best, put some roadblocks here and there to check unlawful practices.

In the present setting, the most pitiable group is the BJP. In urban Punjab, BJP leaders have not covered themselves with glory. "They have done nothing. Even octroi abolition came just four months before the elections. We are totally disillusioned," a hardcore Hindu supporter of the BJP till the other day told me bitterly at Jalandhar. The same feelings were echoed in a number of Punjab towns.

"Power is seen as a licence to loot. We do not mind if they make some money. But these days public money is swindled shamelessly. We must overhaul the system," a young entrepreneur told me at Ludhiana.

The educated unemployed youth are equally sore. This was very much reflected by an open letter of an educated young person addressed to Punjab Chief Minister Parkash Singh Badal. We carried the letter in The Tribune's February 19 issue. I am reproducing this letter in public interest:

"Dear grandpa, Sat Sri Akal,

"You will feel happy to know that I have cleared the M. Sc (Chemistry) examination of Panjab University, Chandigarh, by obtaining 83 per cent marks with the top position in the university.

"I am sorry to inform you that in spite of my high merit, I am unable to get selection as a teacher in the TGT or JBT rank. The reason is that I cannot pay Rs 2 lakh to an agent of the (SAD-BJP) government which is compulsory for the selection of a teacher. Since you are a landlord and head of a political party, I request you to kindly send me Rs 2 lakh for the agent of this poor government. I promise to return this amount from my salary after the selection.

"The manager of the bank has told me that there is no scheme for loans to pay bribes. Otherwise, I would have applied to the bank for this purpose. I am sure you cannot help me in getting selected as a teacher without the payment of a bribe even if you may be the Chief Minister. It is also doubtful whether any court can give me justice.

"Wishing you a long life and the ability to control corruption.

"Nisha Kaura, Raikot (Ludhiana)."

I consider this letter to be an important public interest document which every political leader ought to take note of.

Mr Parkash Singh Badal is the tallest of all leaders in the state. Farmers still see him as their friend despite their occasional anger. The moot point is: will rural Punjab vote for him as it did on the last occasion? No one has a ready answer. Much will depend on how effectively Panthic Morcha and Congress candidates are able to erode his rural base. Indeed, rural Punjab holds the key to the Chief Minister's fate.

How different Capt Amarinder Singh will be, if his party wins, is difficult to say. The Congress has its own weaknesses as well as quota of undesirable characters. Captain Amarinder Singh has his own limitations. Some of his problems come from the high command as well as from his party in the state. The main challenge to him will come from the four devians (four ladies)—Ms Sonia Gandhi, Ms Ambika Soni, Ms Rajinder Kaur Bhattal and Ms Sukhbans Kaur Bhinder. He will need more than his routine royal charm to meet this challenge. Equally vital for him is to project a new image of himself.

Congress President Sonia Gandhi has promised a clean and honest government during her poll campaign in Punjab. The majority of people take her words with a grain of salt. An agitated voter remarked: "All these promises are hollow. We know the candidates are making tall promises to the gatherings to their thunderous applause."

I asked a Congress candidate whether he is serious about the promises he is making to his voters.

His honest answer was: "I do not have Alladin's chirag. I do not wish to give false promises to voters. But what else can I tell these poor and backward people who are struggling for survival without a roof over their heads? If I can help them a bit to wipe out their tears, it will be a good beginning."

Herein lies a ray of hope. After the February 13 verdict, people will look for yet another chance to judge new masters.

"The people of Punjab have begun to enjoy the election melas amidst rallies, songs and merriment.

"The battle of the ballot is better than the battle of bullets," a professor at Guru Nanak Dev University, Amritsar, told me. This is a happy augury for Punjab and underlines a new-found confidence among the people in Wednesday's historic election.Back

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