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September 16, 1999


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Patwa, an outsider who feels at home anywhere

For Bharatiya Janata Party vice-president Sunderlal Patwa, changing constituencies is nothing new. This time too, he has settled for a new seat -- Hoshangabad.

The Congress candidate, Rajkumar Patel, a 36-year-old former minister of state, is trying hard to give the septuagenarian leader a tough fight and wrest the seat from the BJP. All eyes are set on this rural constituency since it was from here that Congress Working Committee member Arjun Singh was trounced by the BJP's Sartaj Singh, who was a minister in prime minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee's 13-day-old ministry in 1996.

Neither the BJP nor the Congress can accuse each other for fielding "outsiders" as Patwa belongs to Mandsaur district and Patel is from the Budni assembly segment, which falls in the Vidisha Lok Sabha constituency. The local Bahujan Samaj Party candidate Ram Lakhan Patel, an advocate, is trying to cash in on his being a "cent per cent" local.

In his political career spanning nearly four decades, Patwa had moved from one assembly constituency to another and won the elections. He won his maiden assembly election from Manasa in Mandsaur district in 1957 and retained the seat in 1962. Later, in 1977, he switched over to neighbouring Mandsaur and won again. He had successfully won the Sehore assembly seat in 1980 but moved to Bhojpur constituency in Raisen district in 1985.

He did not change the constituency in the next two assembly elections and retained the same seat in 1990 and in 1993.

Later, in 1997, the BJP veteran opted to contest the Lok Sabha by-election against former Union minister Kamalnath in Chhindwara which, till then, was a Congress stronghold. The citadel, which had even braved the 1997 Janata Party wave, crumbled before Patwa. But Patwa lost to Kamalnath when he sought re-election from the same constituency last year.

Patwa, a former chief minister, shifted from Chhindwara to Hoshangabad, which has an electorate of over 115,300 voters, including 54,032 women.

Earlier, there were reports that Patwa had sought a ticket to contest for the Bhopal seat but Union minister of state Uma Bharati and another former chief minister Kailash Joshi wanted to contest form there.

Subsequently, the party high command asked Patwa, known to be "close" to BJP president Kushabhau Thakre, to contest from Hoshangabad, considered a safe bet for the BJP.

"In my career, I have never taken decisions myself. I leave such decisions to the party. The party asked me to contest for Hoshangabad so I am here," says Patwa, when asked about his candidature from a new constituency.

But the Congress claim that frequent shifting of constituencies will not work well this time as the people realise that such leaders are not committed to any particular constituency. Says Congress candidate Rajkumar Patel, "He is a migrant leader. What is the guarantee that Patwa will remain with the people of Hoshangabad even for the next few years, particularly when the country is facing frequent elections?"

This is not for the first time that Patwa and Patel are pitted against each other. In 1990, Patel had unsuccessfully contested assembly election against the BJP leader from Bhojpur assembly constituency.

The Congress workers, citing the case of Chhindwara, point out that Patwa won the previous assembly elections whenever he contested against a new candidate but was beaten when contested against the man who had lost earlier.

"We are confident of trouncing Mr Patwa, who is contesting against Mr Patel for the second time," one of them said.

None of the parties are indulging in a war of posters, banners, buntings and cut-outs, except at a few places in Hoshangabad and Narsinghpur towns. At some places in Hoshangabad town, even last year's election hoardings for Arjun Singh have not been removed.

Patel is concentrating more on the rural areas, going from village to village. He was touring Gadarwara, Bohani and Narsinghpur assembly segments in Narsinghpur district and Pipariya, Hoshangabad, Itarsi and Seoni-Malwa assembly constituencies of Hoshangabad district. He is reportedly trying to woo the youth of other backward classes, including the Kirar community to which he belongs. Kirars constitute a major part of the electorate.

Party's election manager and former Rajya Sabha member Kailash Narayan Sarang however dismissed the possibility of caste-based voting in Hoshangabad, saying that if it had been so, Sartaj Singh, a Sikh, would not have won this seat four times in a row. The BSP did not field its candidate here in the last election since Arjun Singh was contesting here.

But this time, its candidate, Ram Lakhan Patel, is determined to make a dent. "The other backward classes and dalits will show their strength this time," state BSP treasurer Rajendra Kumar Dawna said, adding that the people were aware that heavyweights would come and go without doing anything for their welfare.

Sartaj Singh, who represented this constituency in the dissolved 12th Lok Sabha, had opted out of race, announcing his exit was to facilitate entry of new faces from within the party.

Known for his oratory and organisational skills, Patwa is devoting more time in campaigning in other constituencies, giving an impression that it is going to be a cakewalk for him, even in a new constituency. Sartaj Singh and his team of supporters are leading Patwa's election campaign. But the BJP is not getting complacent and it is taking no chances. Top BJP leaders, including Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee, Information and Broadcasting Minister Pramod Mahajan and former Delhi chief minister Sushma Swaraj have addressed public meetings in the constituency.

Meanwhile, Rajkumar Patel is an acolyte of Chief Minister Digvijay Singh, who was present when the candidate filed his nomination papers. Digvijay Singh's interest in Patel has spurred local Congress leaders into contesting harder than they would have.

So though there are seven candidates in the fray, the main contest seems to be between the BJP and the Congress.

Other than the BSP, Sharad Pawar's Nationalist Congress Party and the Gondwana Gantantra Party had also put up candidates. In the November assembly elections, the BJP lost five assembly segments of this Lok Sabha constituency. It could win only the Itarsi, Pipariya and Bohani segments.

Situated in the Narmada valley, parts of Hoshangabad constituency have very fertile land, where a majority of the local population is engaged in agriculture.

Wheat, soyabean and sugarcane are among the major crops and the famous tuvar dal produced in Gadarwara is exported.

Despite having scope for agro-based industries, few units exist in the area and the growth of other industries has also far from satisfactory. Acharya Rajneesh, who had created waves throughout the world with his Osho philosophy, and the Holland-based Maharshi Mahesh Yogi both were from this constituency. However, the Ajeya Bharat Party floated by Maharshi Mahesh Yogi, did not field a candidate here.

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