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|September 21, 1999||
Development, statehood are the key issues in this mineral-rich region
Veteran Congress leader Shyama Charan Shukla is making a maiden attempt to enter the Lok Sabha from this backward rural constituency in Madhya Pradesh. At stake is his image as a political heavyweight built over a long innings spanning over five decades which saw three stints as chief minister of the state.
There is a muted upheaval in the Congress in the Chhattisgarh region over the denial of party ticket this time to his younger brother and former Union minister V C Shukla. The elder Shukla had so far preferred to remain in state politics.
Contesting against Shukla is the BJP's popular farmer leader Chandrashekhar Sahu, who wrested the seat for the party for the first time in 1998, defeating the sadhu-turned politician Pawan Diwan of the Congress. Ramlal Chakradhari of Ajeya Bharat Party, Govardhan Chandrakar of Chhattisgarhi Samaj Party and two independents are also in the fray for the September 25 elections. The Bahujan Samaj Party has not fielded any candidate in this constituency.
The more than a million-strong electorate of this rural constituency, spread over the three districts of Raipur, Mahasamund and Dhamtari, are keenly watching as the contest builds up to an unpredictable climax.
A Congress stronghold, till it fell to the opposition for the first time during the Janata wave in 1977, Mahasamund returned V C Shukla when he contested on the Janata Dal-S symbol in 1989.
This time the early announcement of Sahu's candidature, who unsuccessfully contested from here in 1991 and 1996, has given the BJP a headstart.
S C Shukla's contacts with the senior party workers of the previously undivided Raipur district, even when he kept himself aloof from the mainstream Congress politics for about a decade following the split in the party after the 1977 elections, has come in handy now.
The irrigation facilities in parts of Rajim, Kurud and Dhamtari segments due to the Mahanadi, Pairy and Sondur dams are being highlighted by the Congress leaders as Shukla's contribution.
But the development plank of the Congress is being strongly contested by the BJP, which points to the absence of a canal network and motorable roads in the region.
Sahu, while addressing BJP workers at Gariaband, a part of Rajim assembly segment, gave credit for the construction of a bridge across the Pairy river to former Congress MP Pawan Diwan, who belongs to the anti-Shukla camp in the state Congress.
The BJP workers also pointed out that the poll boycott decision by the residents of Khatti village near Rajim to protest against the lack of irrigation facilities was proof of the neglect of the area by successive Congress governments -- Shukla headed the government in 1969, 1975 and 1989. He was an MLA from the area for about four decades, they point out.
Most of the electorate in the sprawling constituency are now busy with the winter crop and are on the whole indifferent to the lacklustre campaign. Even the candidates and their supporters prefer to hold only group discussions or street corner meetings. The usual cacophony associated with an election campaign is more or less absent. Posters, banners and even cut-outs are scanty forcing the voters to say ''chunav ka mahoul abhi bana nahi hai'' (the election fever is yet to come).
Political observers, however, feel that the situation may change on the eve of the polls and caste equations and the denial of ticket to V C Shukla are likely to have an impact.
Recently, some prominent Congress workers of Saraipali area, including nagar panchayat president Virendra Singh and Raipur district panchayat member Mandakini Sahu, defected to the BJP.
The erstwhile royal family of Saraipali, with its two members Mahendra Bahadur Singh and Devendra Bahadur Singh representing Saraipali and Basna assembly segments, still holds considerable sway over the rural voters, particularly the Gond tribals, who constitute over one-fourth of the electorate.
Says Chamanlal Chandrakar, ''The consolidation of the Sahu community, if any, might tilt the balance.'' Chandrahas, a staunch BJP worker, claims that the youth are with the BJP which was evident from the fact that the party wrested from the Congress three of the eight assembly seats of the area in last November's assembly polls.
Even as the Congress is raising the stability plank the BJP is attempting to woo the voters on the ''clean image'' of Atal Bihari Vajpayee and the Kargil issue. The stark poverty in the Mainpur-Gariaband belt, where diamond deposits are located, was evidence of the hollowness of the Congress claim of development, Sahu said.
The BJP's attempt to rake up the recent steep hike in electricity tariff seems to have clicked. The Congress leaders are hardpressed on this particular issue forcing S C Shukla to announce at a press conference that he would make efforts to rationalise the tariff if the Congress formed the government at the Centre.
The Chhattisgarh state issue is being raised by the BJP and Congress. Both parties reaffirm their commitment for a separate state and have included it in their respective manifestos.
Shukla's statement that parts of western Orissa and a few districts from eastern Madhya Pradesh should be included in the proposed state to make it a strong and viable Vajandar Rajya is being dubbed by the BJP as an attempt by Shukla to create controversy and thereby delay the formation of the Chhattisgarh state.
While Shukla exuded confidence about his victory, Sahu says the 'Atal wave' will see him through. ''Yeh paise aur passeene ki ladai hai (toil and savings are at war here), '' Sahu added.
Union Home Minister L K Advani has campaigned for the BJP in Mahasamund, while state Chief Minister Digvijay Singh would be pitching in soon for Shukla.
Rajiv Ranjan, district collector and returning officer of Mahasamund, said that elaborate arrangements had been made for the smooth conduct of the polls. Two companies of paramilitary forces have been made available for Mahasamund district, Superintendent of Police Ashutosh Rai revealed.
As there is apprehension of heavy rains on polling day, bullock carts, tractors and, where necessary, boats would be deployed for transporting poll materials and personnel, Raipur district collector M K Raut said.
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