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INDIA POLLS: Congress scrambling to retain backing in south

Publication Date : 05-05-2014

 

The ruling Congress party will have to scrape the bottom of its barrel in southern India to retain a credible presence in Parliament, with large sections in the north set to vote opposition in heavy numbers.

The southern states - Andhra Pradesh, Tamil Nadu, Karnataka, Kerala and the lone Pondicherry seat - together account for 130 of the 543 seats in Parliament's directly elected Lok Sabha, or House of the People.

According to the last poll by NDTV, a respected TV channel, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) of opposition front runner Narendra Modi and its allies are likely to emerge with 275 seats, with the BJP alone taking perhaps 226. The ruling party, by this forecast, is expected to bag fewer than 100 seats for its worst polls showing.

The Congress has been on the back foot before in northern India, only to be rescued by the south to a large measure.

In 1977, after the late Indira Gandhi called elections after two years of emergency rule, the Congress was routed in the north, thanks in part to unpopular measures like forced sterilisations of adult males in the name of population control ordered by Mrs Gandhi's younger son Sanjay, who died in a plane crash in 1980.

At the time, the south stood firmly with her. Indeed, Mrs Gandhi herself was elected to Parliament from the southern state of Karnataka, even as she was defeated in her traditional home ground in Uttar Pradesh state.

This time, while the northern wave for the opposition is equally pronounced, southern backing for Congress has frayed.

"What to speak of making new friends and allies, Sonia Gandhi is having trouble getting even her own party people to stand from Andhra and Tamil Nadu," says veteran political analyst T.V.R. Shenoy, referring to the biggest electoral prizes of southern India.

Indeed, so dismal is the situation that Finance Minister P. Chidambaram has chosen not to contest at all, instead fielding his son Karti in the Tamil Nadu constituency of Sivaganga, which had voted for the father since 1984.

Another straw in the wind: In next-door Andhra Pradesh, Ms D. Purandeswari, a junior minister in the Manmohan Singh Cabinet, quit Congress and signed on with the BJP in March.

The biggest of the southern states is Andhra Pradesh, which sends 42 MPs to New Delhi but is voting as a single state for the last time since a chunk of it is to be hived off soon as a new state, Telengana. Andhra, whose state capital Hyderabad is India's second best known IT hub after Bangalore, delivered 33 seats to Congress in 2009 under its chief minister Y.S.R. Reddy.

But Reddy died in a helicopter crash soon after and Congress fumbled the succession, leading Reddy's son and widow to split from the party. It then came good on an election promise to create Telengana state which went badly wrong - a powerful regional party that had campaigned for Telengana's statehood reneged on its promise to merge with Congress while the wider Andhra region resented the split. The upshot: Congress may win just six seats, according to poll projections.

The forecast for Tamil Nadu, which sends 39 MPs to Parliament: zero for Congress. In 2009, it won eight seats in the state and its ally, DMK, took another 18. This time, there is no alliance.

With the biggest southern states poised to spurn Congress, it will have to find its silver linings in neighbouring Karnataka and Kerala, where its candidates include globally known software mogul Nandan Nilekani and charismatic United Nations diplomat turned politician Shashi Tharoor.

"Karnataka is absolutely crucial for Congress," says political analyst Shekhar Iyer. "The contest has become ever closer as the weeks pass and there is little chance of a windfall that the party will gain 20 seats, something it had hoped for."

Karnataka has 28 seats in Parliament and Kerala, 20. Indications are that Congress may gain some seats this time in Karnataka, as the BJP yields some of the 19 seats it holds there. Still, it is unlikely that Congress will take more than half the seats from the state.

Some happy tidings also await in Kerala, where the Congress faces less of an anti-incumbency backlash. That is thanks in part to the popularity of incumbent Chief Minister Oommen Chandy and the diligent nursing of seats like Trivandrum, the state capital, by its MP, Tharoor. Voters seem ready to ignore the scandals surrounding Tharoor, whose third wife died in controversial circumstances in January.

But even with names like Nilekani, co-founder of the IT giant Infosys, on its slate, Congress has a fight on its hands. Many are looking beyond their immediate candidates in order to give Modi a hand, hopeful that he may prove the solution to the maladministration that marked the Singh government's second tenure in office.

Says C. Sreenivasan, a Bangalore resident who works for a multinational aid agency: "Who does not respect Nandan Nilekani? Yet, when you cast your vote you have to consider which party it will help ultimately and this time I simply did not wish to give that to Congress. Just for that reason, my vote went to the BJP's Ananth Kumar."

 

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