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September 20, 1999


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Congress confident of surprising BJP in Mahakaushal

Vaihayasi Pande Daniel in Bhopal

The robust lotus now blooms in Mahakaushal, south central Madhya Pradesh, once a Congress bastion. This election may temporarily dislodge a few flowers in bloom.

Mahakaushal consists of seven Lok Sabha seats -- Balaghat, Betul, Chhindwara, Hoshangabad, Jabalpur, Mandla and Seoni. Mandla is a scheduled tribe seat. Other definitions tie in a few more seats -- Damoh, Khandwa, Khargone and Sagar -- bringing the region's count up to 11 berths in the Lower House.

Once part of the old and large state of CP and Berar, Mahakaushal's Congress ties is associated with an extended period of colonial rule. Unlike areas nearby that were princely states, Jabalpur and the surrounding Mahakaushal area came under British influence, relatively early. And thus in opposition to foreign domination the pre-Independence Congress movement found strong roots here.

For long periods after Independence, Mahakaushal returned only Congress candidates to Parliament. As late as 1984, Mahakaushal was an all Congress stretch.

In 1989 the tide started to change and one by one constituencies tipped over to the Bharatiya Janata Party. In the 1998 general election, barring Chhindwara and Seoni, the BJP won all the seats in the region.

Defeat at Chhindwara is not looked on as much of a failure by the BJP because the 11,815 sq km constituency has been a Kamal Nath fiefdom for twenty years. So the only constituency in this region where the BJP fared poorly was Seoni.

In the last assembly election, Mahakaushal remained by and large a Congress belt. Last winter, the Congress won 35 out of the region's 55 assembly seats; the BJP won 17.

Parts of Mahakaushal touch the Maharashtra border and some sub-regions once belonged to the Bhonsle kingdoms, from as early as the 1740s. It is not surprising therefore that in these areas the caste make up is often similar to its neighbours across the border in Vidarbha. Balaghat, Betul, Chhindwara and Seoni have notable populations of Maratha Kunbis.

Approximately 10.5 per cent of Mahakaushal is populated by the scheduled castes with percentages going up to 14 per cent in Hoshangabad. Mehras, Satnami Chamars, Balais are some of the scheduled castes particular to this area.

Mahakaushal is about 4.5 per cent Muslim with more notable Muslim percentages in Jabalpur. On an average 25 per cent of the region is populated by the scheduled tribes -- Gonds, Kols, Korkus. Sixty three per cent of Mandla's population is tribal; Chhindwara has a 30 per cent tribal population.

Even as the BJP was poised to become a credible alternative in this region, the situation may change slightly this election. Says a local observer, "I don't see a major change. But the Congress may gain a few seats."

Increasingly in Madhya Pradesh, the choice of a candidate has made the difference between a landslide or oblivion. So while the BJP is likely to retain a number of seats it has been aggregating since 1989, Jabalpur and Balaghat, even Hoshangabad, could well prove troublesome.

In Jabalpur, where Brahmins are said to be in large numbers, the BJP has fielded a new candidate, Jayshree Banerji, against the Congress's Chandramohan Das, a newspaper proprietor and son of former MP Seth Govindas. Banerji, an MLA, comes from a prominent RSS family.

The sitting BJP MP, Baburao Paranjpe -- a Jan Sangh stalwart who won the seat thrice in 1989, 1996 and 1998 with margins between 84,000 and 101,000 votes -- has stepped down. Party sources said Paranjpe has been retired because "he was an elderly candidate. He is now 82." He is actually 77. The party believes Banerji is a stronger contender.

Not so says the afore quoted observer. "I have not seen as much factionalism in the BJP in 20 years as I see today. Congressmen don't fight like this. When I went to Jabalpur I discovered that Paranjpe was not working for Banerji and had made a complaint."

"The BJP is facing a problem in Balaghat too. They have a new candidate," he adds. At Balaghat the BJP has nominated Prahlad Patel against Congressman Visveshwar Bhagat who has twice won the constituency (1991 and 1996). Bhagat lost the last election against Gauri Shankar Bisen by 25,500 votes.

Officially, Bisen's reason for stepping down from the fray was because of the BJP's poor performance here in the assembly election. There was also apparently a requirement for a Lodh candidate and Patel, a young energetic member of the community from Gotegaon, fitted the bill. But says a BJP source, "Balaghat could be a problem. Margins are narrow."

The contest is not easy for star BJP candidate Sunderlal Patwa at Hoshangabad either. "The fight is fairly equal," explains a local journalist. Equal enough anyway to prevent the BJP vice-president from moving out of the neighbourhood and lending a hand with the party's campaign elsewhere. He is in the fray against Raj Kumar Patel.

Youth is not on Patwa's side. The venerable Shwetambar Jain from Mandasaur is nearly 76. By contrast, Patel, a former Congress MLA, is young and not a rank outsider. He belongs to the local community of Kirars.

Hoshangabad is Sartaj Singh's dominion and the constituency has returned the genial Sikh to Parliament four times since 1989. While it is known that Singh has been aiding Patwa with his extensive campaign, his reaction to being set aside for the former chief minister and its effect on the local BJP workers is difficult to discern. Party sources, however, maintain that Singh did not wish to contest this election for financial reasons.

In Betul, Chhindwara, Mandla and Seoni, much of the parameters of the 1998 election have remained the same. Successful BJP candidates are still in the fray -- Vijay Kumar Khandelwal from Betul and Faggan Singh Kuleste from Mandla. Khandelwal is a long standing BJP activist who hails from Betul, a constituency that has baniya, Jain and Maharashtrian pockets. Adivasi leader Kuleste has been victorious twice in Mandla. A farmer and teacher from Jewara, he has been in politics for 10 years in various capacities.

Congress MPs Vimla Verma from Seoni and the almost invincible Kamal Nath from Chhindwara will run again too. In all four constituencies both the BJP and Congress have put up new candidates against the sitting MPs.

The Congress has posted local MLA Devendram Tikam against Phagan Singh in Mandla and Gufran-e-Azam (who won in 1989) against Khandelwal in Betul. The BJP has put up Ram Naresh Tripathi opposite Verma in Seoni and Santosh Jain opposite Kamal Nath in Chhindwara.

Says BJP spokesperson Prabhat Jha of Jain, "He is young and loyal. He has been put up with future gains in mind." That, of course, would have to be very much in the future, considering that Chhindwara is the only seat in the Hindi belt which the Congress has always won. (It lost a by-election in 1997 though when Kamal Nath lost to Patwa.)

The BJP strategy in confronting Verma with Tripathi appears to be caste oriented. Brahmins make up 5 per cent of Seoni's population (Lodhis, Jains, Ahirs, Maharashtrians and Thakurs are also in large numbers here). In the past another Brahmin, Congressman Gargi Shankar Mishra has won the seat twice before losing it narrowly to the BJP in 1989.

Verma is a respected politician and was a Union minister for several years. The BJP believes she is getting on in age -- she is 70 -- and her performance is not up to the people's expectations and therefore Tripathi stands a chance.

Says Manek Agarwal, the state Congress general secretary, "I think we should win six or seven seats out of 11 in Mahakaushal this time." His definition of Mahakaushal includes Damoh, Khandwa, Khargone and Sagar.

Less optimistic tallies believe the Congress would be fortunate to win four seats in Mahakaushal. Five would be providence.


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