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|September 22, 1999||
Gamang fights proxy war through wife
M I Khan
If the Koraput Lok Sabha constituency was not reserved for the Scheduled Tribes, Congress president Sonia Gandhi may well have contested from here as it is one of the safest seats for the party, retaining it even at the height of the anti-Congress wave in 1977.
This time Chief Minister Giridhar Gamang, an eight-time winner from here, has managed to put up his wife, Hemabati, against his old rival, Jayram Pangi of the Biju Janata Dal-Bharatiya Janata Party combine. In the past Pangi had been defeated by Gamang, four times when the former was a Janata Dal candidate and one time as the BJD candidate.
Thanks to the still-continuing domination of Indira Gandhi over this tribal-dominated constituency, the Congress is enjoying a distinct advantage over its opponent. "It is one of the few seats in the country where the Congress is sitting pretty, with the Vajpayee wave hardly having an impact," admits a Congress critic Jagannath Rao at Koraput district headquarters, who has been supporting the Congress for long, but is now disappointed that nothing has changed despite Gamang representing it for 28 years without a break.
And given that record, there is no reason why Hemabati should not win, even though Pangi has been desperately trying to project himself as the man who is out to teach Gamang a lesson for causing the collapse of the Vajpayee government with his solitary vote. "I wants to defeat the Congress by just one vote and avenge the Vajpayee government's ouster," Pangi told rediff.com
In the last election, even as the Congress lost heavily in the tribal dominated seats in western and northern Orissa, it managed to retain Koraput with a good margin.
Hemabati may be fighting her first electoral battle, but she is neither new to politics nor unknown to the voters. Her main advantage lies in the fact that she is the wife of a man who is synonymous with Koraput.
From Gunput to Laxmipur and Rayagada to Jaypore to Koraput town, the district hq, it is a vast stretch of underdeveloped, drought-prone area known for poverty and starvation deaths, besides high infant mortality and poor healthcare. "If I win here I will change its face here by providing better healthcare facilities for women," says Hemabati.
Pangi meanwhile is trying to exploit local issues by repeatedly reminding the people that all this while the Congress has barely cared for the constituency, and hardly provided any basic facilities here. "Give me your support and I will try to change all this," he repeats in meeting after meeting.
This pitch may have few takers among the middle classes in semi-urban areas like Koraput town and Jeypore but in Lamtapur, Madehepur, Mastiput and Kumbagaon, the voters seem hardly taken in by it. A majority of people in this tribal dominated seat remain loyal to the 'hand' and the Gandhi family. "We used to vote for the 'hand' for decades and there is no question of changing it today. The 'hand' has represented us for long and we have become habituated to voting for it," said a middle-aged man in Rayagada, a Congress bastion.
Similarly a tribal youth, Manthur Gupt Das from a village in Gunpur block says the Congress is popular all around because this seat was always win by the party without any trouble. "The Gandhi family always takes care of our needs," he says without knowing that Koraput is still one of the most backward pockets in the country. Tribals here are, even today, exposed to deadly malaria, malnutrition and other civilisational scourges, apart from the high rate of female illiteracy.
In Raygada town, Telugu-speaking Shakuri Oram, a rickshaw-puller, says, "We will vote for the Congress again." Echoing the sentiment is another rickshaw-puller, Praja Sila Bagh, who made it clear that ever since he started voting he and with his family members have always voted the Congress.
Surprisingly, even a hardcore supporter of the BJD-BJP like businessman Subhash Panda says there is no reason why Hemabati will not win since tribals, who constitute a majority here, know the 'hand' intuitively. Another BJD supporter, Pratap Das in Jeypore, said the main handicap with his party is its weak party network and a lack of votebank in the interiors.
Hemabati is asking the voters to support her in order to fulfil the "incomplete task" of her husband who represented them since 1972. Downplaying national issues, she focuses on local issues like providing health facilities for women and education for children and other welfare schemes like free rice and pension for old people. "It would be my priority after the elections that all hospitals and dispensaries have doctors and ambulances and life-saving drugs," she says.
The criticism about poor performance so far does not faze Gamang or Hemabati. "If the people want us to represent them, they must have realised that we will serve them better," the duo told this correspondent in Rayagada during the campaign. In response to being a novice in politics, Hemabati unhesitatingly asks the people in meeting after meeting whether she is knew to them, and has the crowd roar back its 'no'. Congress workers claim she is not a new face since she has been campaigning for her husband for two decades.
"I am very popular among the people and I have direct interaction with almost all the Congress workers of the constituency," she shouted out at one of her meetings in Jeypore on Sunday. "For the people I am certainly an old face since after my marriage I became associated with all of my husband's political activities."
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