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|September 22, 1999||
Kamal vs kamal
Five-time winner and former Union minister Kamal Nath of the Congress, who is involved in a direct contest with Santosh Jain of the Bharatiya Janata Party, seems all set to retain this traditional Congress stronghold in Madhya Pradesh, when it goes to the polls on September 25.
With victory over his low-profile opponent almost certain in a constituency he has assiduously nursed, Kamal Nath's only concern this time will be to improve his record win in 1998 -- a margin of 153,000 votes over BJP veteran and former chief minister Sunderlal Patwa.
The battle is once again between the two Kamals -- Kamal Nath versus the kamal (lotus) symbol of the BJP. ''What is most remarkable is that most people do not speak ill of Kamal Nath,'' his campaign manager says, adding that, ''Though the main fight is said to be between the Congress and the BJP, for all practical purposes, it is not the party but Kamal Nath who is the dominant factor in the constituency.''
For the Congress, Chhindwara is perhaps the safest seat in Madhya Pradesh as it has been winning it since 1952, barring the 1997 by-election.
The Congress won all the eight assembly segments of this Lok Sabha constituency in the November 1998 assembly election. This constituency returned a Congress candidate even during the 1977 Janata Party wave.
Kamal Nath has been representing this constituency for the last 17 years -- from 1980 to 1996 and again from 1998. He had to bow out of the contest in 1996 because he was denied a party ticket in view of the hawala scam but his wife Alka retained the seat for the Congress.
She, however, vacated the seat, necessitating the 1997 by-election which her husband lost to Patwa. He avenged his defeat a year later, beating Patwa convincingly.
Patwa has now shifted to Hoshangabad. Earlier, speculations were rife over the possibility of Congress president Sonia Gandhi seeking election from here in addition to Amethi and Bellary.
Electioneering here has been subdued as heavy rains have adversely affected normal life and electioneering.
The Congress, however, has spared no efforts to make its campaign successful. Apart from starting off earlier than the BJP, Kamal Nath had toured the entire constituency even before mid-term elections were announced.
Kamal Nath is banking on the development works he has initiated here, while the BJP is playing the Vajpayee and Kargil cards.
Describing Patwa's one-year term as a ''speed-breaker'' that prevented the fast development of the constituency, Kamal Nath alleged that Patwa was responsible for the closure of various coal mines, rendering thousands unemployed.
This constituency has an electorate of 1.5 million, of which 48.29 per cent are women. Tribals are the dominant section comprising 32 per cent of the populace, followed by Gonds (22 per cent), Scheduled Castes (21.5 per cent), Other Backward Classes (27 per cent), upper castes (12.5 per cent) and minorities (6.5 per cent).
The tribals and Gonds are expected to play a major role in tilting the balance.
In view of the poll-related incidents in the past two elections in the constituency, the Election Commission has appointed a special observer besides deploying additional forces to strengthen the law and order machinery for the polling on September 25.
The BJP campaign, already going slow thanks to the downpour, is also missing the large army of party workers who were deployed during the 1997 by-elections.
BJP candidate Santosh Jain, a young lawyer with a Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh background, has opted for an extensive village-to-village tour of the assembly segments of Amarwada (ST), Chaurai, Chhindwara, Damua (ST), Jamani (ST), Pandurna, Parasia (SC) and Saunsar to cover the maximum number of voters.
Considered a firebrand labour leader, Jain was injured in a police lathi-charge a few years ago during a labour agitation and jailed, but was acquitted on charges of attempt to murder. During the BJP regime, he was director of the State Textile Corporation.
Local BJP workers say Jain's organisational skills and his labour-friendly image was his main strength and that he would fare well in the labour-dominated coal belt.
His supporters are also raising the issue of development, particularly in the tribal assembly segments, saying that such a ''VIP constituency'' should have progressed much more.
Gondwana Gantantra Party candidate Govindi, a 35-year-old local tribal woman, is in the fray and is expected to cut into the tribal votes. Five other candidates in the fray are Independents.
The Bahujan Samaj Party, which had polled only 1.40 per cent of the votes in the last election, did not field a candidate this time. Though Marathas constitute ten per cent of the populace, Maratha strongman Sharad Pawar's Nationalist Congress Party has not entered the fray.
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