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|September 24, 1999||
The Congress has a tough time in Nabarangpur
M I Khan in Nabarangpur
For decades, the Congress considered the tribals their 'loyal vote bank'. Now, thanks to a single decision by the party's government, the tribals are looking elsewhere.
The state government cancelled special ration cards, depriving a large chunk of tribals from the subsidised rice provided under the Below Poverty Line scheme. And that step is likely to cost the party a great many votes in this election.
The Congress in this parliamentary constituency reserved for the scheduled tribes in southern Orissa always depended on the tribals to see them through. They won here even during the anti-Congress waves of 1977 and 1989. Veteran Congress MP Khagapati Pradhani who held the seat in the 12th Lok Sabha has won it a record nine times running.
"People were voting for the Congress since as the party network has influenced them but this time the scenario had changed in a dramatic way. The party has upset them by the decision to cancel a large numbers of BPL ration cards," admits a senior Congress leader at Papadahandi, about 12 km from Nabarangpur town.
During electioneering, the party members face angry people deprived of the BPL ration cards or find a far smaller crowd to address than does its old rival, the BJP. The BJP's popularity has jumped suddenly in the constituency, with the tribals in particular feeling the saffron party should be given a chance this time.
Unlike literate middle-class voters in semi-urban areas like Nabarangpur town, who always back the BJP, the disappointed tribals are taking a more aggressive step against the Congress.
Shyam Reeli, a landless tribal labourer from Dasarapada village, says, "This time we have decided to vote for the lotus [the BJP symbol] instead of the hand [the Congress symbol]. That view was echoed by many standing near the village bus stop.
"The Congress was getting our support but they never did anything for us; instead they have deprived us of cheap rice because we are poor and illiterate" Reeli said angrily, alleging that the Congressmen grew rich on money sent for tribal welfare.
"We are tired of giving votes to the Congress; this time we decided to test the BJP," said Bulla, another tribal. Though this may be the view of one pocket, it appears unlikely that the Congress will have the easy time it has had till now. Earlier, Congress workers here hardly used to bother about electioneering.
"I have been voting for the hand since I was young but it hardly benefitted us; it is high time we gave the BJP a chance," says Majhari Majhi, a middle-aged teacher at Papadahandi village.
Pradhani, the nine-time winner from this constituency, opted out of the fray, asserting he was not able concentrate all his energies on the party any more, forcing the party to put up a new candidate, Chandrasekhar Majhi.
Party sources said Pradhani opted out following the state government's decision to deprive about 100,000 families of the subsidised rations, realising what the fall-out could be.
Besides, there are differences in the Congress over the choice of Chandrsekhar Majhi as a candidate. The party has other troubles too.
The state Congress has appointed former minister and senior MLA from Nabarangpur Habibullah Khan as campaign committee incharge but his absence at most party meeting has even worried the electorate.
The party leaders have faced an embarrassing situation in Kotpad, a large and important assembly segment, where the people inquired about the absence of Khan. Khan was a known loyalist of former chief minister J B Patnaik and was dropped from the ministry because he was critical of the incumbent, Gridhar Gamang.
The Congress has done itself much harm by ignoring the rapid growth of the BJP's network in the constituency. BJP candidate Parsuram Majhi, who is the state president of the party's Adivasi Morcha, has unsuccessfully contested the seat in the last three elections. His supporters admit that if he does not make win now, the party might never have a chance here.
But Parsuram Majhi, who first entered the fray in the 1991 Lok Sabha election, has increased his vote percentage from 16 per cent then to 21 per cent in 1996 and 37 per cent in 1998.
Parsuram Majhi has been quick to assure the people that if the BJP comes to power, all those denied BPL ration cards would be provided fresh cards. Another shot in the BJP's arm is the Vajpayee government's recent decision to supply an additional 10 kgs of subsidised rice to BPL card-holders in rural areas.
Ironically, this popular scheme was launched by then Congress chief minister J B Patnaik in Nabarangpur assembly segment. And now it's been turned back on the party.
The Congress is now hoping that the fact that their candidate is from the populous and important Kotpad assembly segment will see them through. They hope that if a large number of voters from this segment opt for him, it can make up for the shortfall in other areas.
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