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September 3, 1999


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Campaign Trail/ Mahendragarh

Death and the maiden

Tara Shankar Sahay in Mahendragarh, Haryana

The rhetoric is fierce, the fiery speeches seemingly endless, the rivalry apparent between the two bitter rivals. And both draw sustenance "from the groundswell of support", which both claim they enjoy in the land of Rao Tularam, the legendary freedom fighter who took up arms against the British way back in 1857.

This is Kargil, without the shooting.

And it is between the Bharatiya Janata Party and the Congress -- with Raghu Yadav of the Bahujan Samaj Party making up the numbers. The lack of campaign or BSP party banners have only underscored its virtual non-presence in the fray.

Being showcased as the symbol of supreme sacrifice which her late husband made in the Kargil conflict, the BJP's Dr Sudha Yadav has obtained an early edge over her Congress rival, Indrajit Singh, in this parliamentary constituency. And a share of the credit should go to state Chief Minister Om Parkash Chautala and his Indian National Lok Dal, which has come to her aid.

In the previous election, the Congress candidate had defeated the BJP's Colonel Ram Singh, who won this seat in the 1996 election. The BJP denied the colonel a party ticket this time round, opting instead for the widow of Border Security Force deputy commandant Sudhir Singh Yadav.

Consequently, the colonel's supporters are up in arms against the saffron party, and a good many of their number are actively campaigning for the Congress candidate. However, Chautala's active participation on the BJP's behalf appears to have nullified the rebel factor and has, in fact, given the BJP a marginal edge.

Dr Sudha claims to have been awarded a gold medal while doing her M Sc (organic chemistry). She later completed her Ph D and was all set to pursue a fruitful career when destiny beckoned her into the realm of electoral politics. Soon after her husband's "gallant sacrifice in the highest traditions," she said she was sounded out to contest from Mahendragarh as the BJP candidate. And she agreed.

"I come from a family of armymen," the BJP candidate says. "Apart from my husband who sacrificed his life for the motherland, my uncles are in the army and so is my brother in-law. I was initially hesitant, but my family cleared my doubts and I agreed to be the BJP candidate."

It is apparent that the 'humble' teacher has been tutored by the state BJP leaders in the art of aggressive politics. "What has Indrajit Singh done, except cribbing against the Kargil conflict?," she lashes out. "Has he forgotten that Mahendragarh alone has given up 20 martyrs to Operation Vijay? The Congress dares to say that the credit for Operation Vijay goes to the army. That's all right, but what comprises the army? Men of flesh and blood like my husband, doesn't the Congress know this?"

The voice assumes a high pitch, the hands are raised, palm upwards...

An instant later, the thermostat is turned down as she changes gears, and tells me she has to rush off to the adjoining villages of Rewari, 60 km from Mahendragarh, to address election meetings. And she is off in her jeep, slogan-shouting supporters in tow. "Follow me in your car if you want to see what kind of support I have," she yells at me as her jeep takes off in a swirl of dust.

Meanwhile, BJP state Legislature Party leader Ram Vilas Sharma, addressing a public meeting at Domra Jat village, 11 km from here, admits that Dr Sudha's prospects have " considerably brightened because of the INLD's help. Those who have downscaled the sacrifice of the "valiant sons of Mahendragarh in the Kargil yudh" will be taught a lesson by the voters, he shouts to wild applause from the 10,000-something crowd.

However, underlying the BJP-INLD camaraderie in Domra Jat is the fact that both parties regard Dr Sudha as their own protégé. Pawan Yadav, an INLD worker, said Chautala had showered his blessings and support to the BJP candidate as she is "Mahendragarh ki beti." He points out that approximately 450,000 of the constituency's 1.25 million voters are Yadavs. "By and large, the Yadavs have chosen to support Sudha," Pawan Yadav contends.

But the BJP's Ram Vilas Sharma, overhearing Pawan's assertion, maintains that the INLD had decided to support the BJP candidate because Chautala knew that "Atal Bihari Vajpayee is the winning horse." Pawan Yadav disagrees violently, arguing that if the INLD was not there, the BJP candidate would meet the same electoral fate which Colonel Ram Singh had met last year.

Krishna Kumar, a dhaaba owner on the outskirts of Mahendragarh, pointed out that this underlying rivalry between the BJP and the INLD over the candidate has in fact discouraged many workers of both parties. "If the BJP and INLD workers canvas for Sudha to their full potential, she will win by a huge margin," he asserts.

The Congress MLA from the Mahendragarh assembly segment, Dan Singh, ridicules the BJP's claim pertaining to Kargil and argues that "the voters in this constituency know that the sacrifices were made by the army and not by or for the BJP." He said the saffron party had no right to politicise the army and the other wings of the armed forces because "Indians are secular by nature and the sensibilities of the other communities could not be hurt because of the communal outlook of the BJP."

Asked why the Congress had not referred, in its campaign speeches, to Sudhir Singh Yadav's sacrifice in Kargil, Dan Singh says: "What nonsense! The BSF was never deployed in Kargil. Sudhir Singh Yadav was killed in Kupwara! The BJP is misleading the people as a cheap election gimmick!"

Having made this startling assertion, Dan Singh points out a BJP poster containing the slogan "Kashmir ho ya Kanyakumari, Amethi ho ya Bellary, sare jagah Atal Bihari , Atal Bihari" and contended that the saffron party had gone crazy. He said Sonia Gandhi would win comfortably from both Bellary and Amethi, and the Congress performance would jolt the BJP back to reality. He then sought my views on a report in a Hindi-language daily which gave the Congress a total of 185 seats.

However, Dan Singh's latent anxiety about the Congress candidate's prospects surfaced unexpectedly when he was asked whether he had any message to convey to the electorate in Mahendragarh. "Please write positive things about Indrajit Singh so that he wins," Dan Singh all but pleaded.

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