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|September 9, 1999||
Rustic rivals give Yashwant Sinha a run for his money
Pitted against grassroots leaders, Union Finance Minister Yashwant Sinha is leaving nothing to chance in the sensitive Hazaribagh constituency from where he seeks to enter the Lok Sabha again.
One of the most verdant areas in the non-Himalayan belt, Naxalite-dominated Hazaribaghh has come alive with all the three contestants campaigning vigorously for the polls on September 18.
Contesting against Sinha are trade union leader and Communist Party of India nominee Ramendra Kumar, seeking his maiden entry into Parliament, and Bihar MLA Teklal Mahato of the Jharkhand Mukti Morcha (U).
It is a tough fight for the bureaucrat-turned -politician as his CPI opponent is a three-time MLA from the Barkagaon segment while Mahato has never been defeated in the Mandu assembly segment.
Sinha is as usual articulate and campaigns 14 to 16 hours a day. Ramendra Kumar is determined and goes about his canvassing in a methodical manner. As for Mahato, his rustic ways, fervour, and unassuming attitude is endearing him to ordinary folk.
However, with the Congress and Rashtriya Janata Dal fielding separate candidates -- Ishwari Paswan and minister Aklu Ram Mahato respectively -- the voting pattern is likely to get more complicated which, political observers aver, will ultimately benefit Sinha.
''During the last election we were able to garner the minority and uncommitted votes,'' says BJP campaign organiser Surendra Sinha.
Sinha had lost the general election in Hazaribagh in 1984 soon after quitting the Indian Administrative Service. He won last year, defeating the CPI's Bhuwaneshwar Mahato by nearly 163,000 votes.
Ramendra Kumar is a busy man. His comrades spread out over the coal fields and the otherwise desolate party office is flush with activity. The telephone rings round-the-clock and details of the campaign meetings are discussed animatedly .
Kumar feels Sinha's record as finance minister will go against him. ''To the people of India and Hazaribagh Yashwant Sinha promised the moon and has instead delivered sand dunes,'' he says dramatically.
Sinha, on the contrary, is banking on the development work he has initiated in this area to see him through. ''Development activities were at various stages but the government fell abruptly,'' the minister tells his audience.
The CPI leader, however, contests Sinha's claims, alleging that budgetary allocation for the Karnpura project or for an improved rail network for the region has not been forthcoming.
In Hazaribagh, villagers take a collective decision on whom to vote for. ''I do the same as everyone else does,'' says Ramu of Katkamsandi village.
Until 1977, the 'Raja of Ramgarh', Kamakhya Narayan Singh, had hegemonic control over Hazaribagh -- 12 to 14 assembly seats went to whoever enjoyed his patronage. His younger brother Basant Narayan Singh won four Lok Sabha elections from Hazaribagh.
A riot in Hazaribagh in 1989 changed the polling pattern drastically in favour of the BJP. From a mere seven percent in 1984 the BJP's vote rose to 44 per cent during the 1989 elections. In 1991 it dropped to 29 percent only to surge again to 34.4 percent in 1996. And last year with Yashwant Sinha in the fray the party polled a record 46.4 percent.
The CPI has a solid vote bank in this area dotted with collieries and divided along caste lines. The party polled 39 percent of the votes in 1989. Its share dropped to 38 per cent in 1991 and subsequently declined steadily to 28 per cent in 1996 and 23 per cent during the last Lok Sabha poll. The JMM candidate has has been constantly getting around 120,000 votes in the last three elections.
Out of an electorate of 12,000,00, nearly 534,000 are backward caste and scheduled tribe voters, 100,000 belong to the minority community and 120,000 to the forward castes.
The entire Hazaribagh district has been declared sensitive in view of the poll boycott call given by the Maoist Communist Centre.
Among the 1,075 booths declared sensitive 417 are located in Naxalite-infested areas. Hundred and eighty six booths are communally sensitive and 472 are sensitive for other reasons.
The administration has sought 80 companies of paramilitary forces to ensure peaceful and fair polling.
The MCC has already started enforcing its poll boycott call. Wall warnings have appeared in villages around Pratapapur, the ''capital of MCC'' and elsewhere. Pratapapur village under Kededari block is the place from where the MCC conducts all its operations in Bihar.
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