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October 1, 1999


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Constituency/ Cuttack

Vajpayee wave may drown out Congress's K C Lenka

If there is a pro-Vajpayee wave in Orissa it is most visible in Cuttack.

The dice appears to be heavily loaded against veteran Congress leader Kanhu Charan Lenka, who faces a young dynamic editor turned politician, Bhartruhari Mahtab, a BJD-BJP combine candidate for this prestigious seat.

Mahtab, editor of one of the oldest Oriya daily, Prajatantra founded by his father and former chief minister Dr Harekrushna Mahatab, is seeking re-election from here on the Biju Janata Dal ticket.

This politically sensitive constituency in coastal Orissa, which has sent high profile leaders like Dr Mahtab, J B Patnaik and the late Biju Patnaik to the lower house of Parliament, is at present giving Orissa panchayati raj minister Lenka anxious moments as he makes his debut in the Lok Sabha election in his 28-years-long electoral history.

Though there are seven candidates in the fray, the constituency with over 12,15,000 voters, is all set to witness a straight fight between Mahtab and Lenka, who has also served as Union minister of state for agriculture and railways during his Rajya Sabha tenure from 1990 to 1995.

With the date of final phase of polling, October 3, fast approaching, the two prime contenders are seen leaving no stone unturned to woo the voters by launching vigorous campaign in every nook and corner of this Mahanadi delta region, even till midnight.

The campaigning, which was on a low key, has started gaining momentum with the arrival of several cine-stars like Rajesh Khanna, Shatrughan Sinha and Mukesh Khanna for canvassing in favour of their respective party candidates.

Riding high on the Vajpayee wave, Mahtab, who won the 1998 election against former minister Sayed Mustafiz Ahmed of the Congress by a convincing margin of over 1,12,000 votes, mainly highlights in his campaign the "unscrupulous and unethical" manner in which the Vajpayee government was pulled down.

The Congress has been thoroughly exposed and people, irrespective of their caste and religion, have come forward openly in support of Vajpayee's re-installation at the Centre again, he claims. A confident Mahtab said of the seven assembly segments in the constituency, the last time he trailed only in Athgarh by 3000 votes because of the presence of Janata Dal candidate R P Swain. Since Swain had joined the BJD it would make a total sweep in all the seven segments this time, including Choudwar, Lenka's home segment.

In fact, he said, it was Choudwar which would create history in this election.

On the other hand, being a seasoned politician, Lenka has launched a virulent campaign against Mahtab, alleging his 'non-performance' during the 13month BJP-led coalition government at the Centre. Lenka, who has won four elections to the Orissa assembly from Choudwar, including one against former chief minister Biju Patnaik in his first appearance in 1971 elections, highlights his achievements for the state, particularly in the agriculture sector.

The Congress candidate, who also seems confident of his victory at the hustings despite the favourable wind towards the BJD, in his election meetings tries to neutralise it by describing the "propaganda" over Sonia's nationality as a non-issue. He hopes that the conscious voters of Cuttack will consider the efficiency and credibility of the candidates while exercising their franchise this time.

In the campaign trail the party is put in a tight spot as several of its leaders loyal to former chief minister J B Patnaik are yet to extend their support to Lenka.

The BJD camp was also facing a similar crisis, but it had blown over on the eve of the elections following a rapprochement between party chief Naveen Patnaik and its senior leader Bijoy Mohapatra.

Although the leaders of the Congress and the BJD-BJP combine trade charges and counter-charges over the alleged misrule of the BJP-led government at the Centre and the Congress government in Orissa, stability and leadership have taken the centrestage.

While the Congress depends heavily on the minority vote, which constitutes about 20 per cent of the total electorate, the BJD-BJP combine seems determined to make inroads into the minorities hearts as it did despite the Congress fielding a Muslim candidate last year.

The electorate in the constituency has risen to 12,15,250, including 5,61,184 women, with the addition of 42,102 new voters. The Other Backward Classes are the dominant caste, comprising about 40 per cent, followed by Scheduled Castes (22 per cent), minorities (20 per cent) and upper caste Hindus (12 per cent). The Sikh community comprises a microscopic minority of 0.5 per cent only.

According to district superintendent of police Satyajit Mohanty, no untoward incident had been reported from any point of the constituency so far.

Of the total 1578 polling booths to be set up in the constituency, 865 had been identified as sensitive. The electoral battle for Cuttack Lok Sabha seat has been a prestige issue mainly for the Congress party which has fielded many stalwarts here since the first general elections held in 1952. Former chief minister Dr Mahtab, who is regarded as the architect of modern Orissa, was the first to get elected from Cuttack in 1952 to join the Nehru ministry.

During the last 14 elections, including two byelections held so far for the seat, the Congress has captured it eight times, followed by the Janata Dal (3). Besides, the Praja Socialist Party, the Bharatiya Lok Dal and Biju Janata Dal have won the seat on one occasion each.

While the state's longest serving chief minister, J B Patnaik got elected from the seat thrice in 1971, 1980 and 1984, his party colleague Nityananda Kanungo had won it twice earlier, in 1957 and 1962. Jayanti Patnaik became the first woman to enter the Lok Sabha from Orissa in the 1981 byelection, defeating former Lok Sabha speaker Rabi Ray of the Lok Dal by 49,000 votes. She also won the seat in the next election held in 1984.

However, the Congress citadel became a Janata Dal stronghold after the 1989 polls when Dal stalwart Srikanta Jena beat Jayanti Patnaik by a record margin of over 2,04,000 votes and repeated his performance again in 1991 defeating Patnaik by over 43,600 votes.

Despite the Janata Dal's debacle in the 1995 assembly elections in the state, the party retained the Cuttack Lok Sabha seat in 1996 for the third consecutive term, as former chief minister Biju Patnaik registered a facile victory over Congress candidate Anadi Sahu.

When Biju Patnaik vacated the seat opting for Aska from where he was also elected, Congress wrested Cuttack in the October 1996 by-elections through Sahu who defeated Bhartruhari Mahtab of the Janata Dal by a margin of 27,600 votes. As the Janata Dal split in 1997 after the death of Biju Patnaik, Mahtab fought the 1998 elections from Cuttack on the BJD ticket against Syed Mustafiz Ahmed of the Congress and emerged victorious with a margin of 1,12,694 votes.

Out of the constituency's seven assembly segments, four are represented by the BJD-BJP combine, while three are with the Congress party.



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