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The Rediff Election Interview/V C Shukla

Jyoti Shukla in Raipur | November 25, 2003

Tucked away behind lush green trees on the outskirts of Raipur is Radheshyam Bhavan, Vidya Charan Shukla's farmhouse. Shukla, or Bhaiya as he is called by everyone, is the rebel Congress leader of Chhattisgarh. Arch rival of Chief Minister Ajit Jogi, he still commands the loyalty of many Congress officials and the fascination of a public, which has seen his family serve undivided Madhya Pradesh since Independence.

Pandit Ravishankar Shukla was the first chief minister of undivided Madhya Pradesh. His elder son Shyama Charan Shukla, who is now an ally of Jogi, was chief minister of the state for two terms. Younger son Vidya Charan was once a formidable minister in Indira Gandhi's Cabinet and a member of Parliament eight times. Now, as the state unit president of Sharad Pawar's Nationalist Congress Party, he is fighting for political survival.

V C Shukla gets hardly any coverage in the local media, and certainly not on the front pages and in the main news headlines. His posters on Raipur's walls can be counted on the fingers of one hand. He himself is not contesting the election, though his party is contesting all 90 seats in the new state.

How, then, can he pose a challenge to Jogi?

The answer was evident at last Saturday's iftaar party at Radheshyam Bhavan where nearly 5,000 people thronged to break their fast, that too in an electoral atmosphere where the common man is mostly keeping away from political rallies. No political bigwig could be seen around. But it was open house for the commoners who came in a steady stream, washing their hands and sitting down for iftaar as casually as they have been doing for years.

Shukla himself had not returned from his election campaign, but he was expected by 5 pm and every place was filled before he arrived.

It was 5.15 pm when his helicopter arrived at the helipad within the farmhouse compound and he sat down with the people. They kept coming to greet him, touch his feet, sometimes hand over an application. There was a respected hush around him. Children and teenagers came to pick up snacks and look upon the veteran politician with awe.

If these elections are so important for him, why is he not contesting himself? "I wanted to reach as many places as possible," Shukla replies. "We are contesting all 90 seats and I did not want to restrict myself to any one constituency."

Shukla, the tension clearly telling on his visage, does not put a number to his expectation from the election, but says, "We will have a clear majority. We will form the government."

It is not only the political challenge that is keeping him on his toes. Chhattisgarh has suddenly become a whirlpool of dirty politics. People at paan shops speculate in hushed tones if the media is also under pressure to keep away from those opposing the ruling party.

When Shukla is confronted with a direct question about this alleged gag on the media, he chooses his words with care. "Government officials and the media are behaving rather peculiarly here," he says.

Does he mean these sections are under pressure from higher-ups in the government?

"So many theories are doing the rounds," he says evasively. "The media are in an odd situation here. You are a journalist, you can find out yourself."

He refuses to rise to the bait when asked why he is not coming out in the open and explaining what 'odd situation' means. "Lots of things are being said about the media, but I don't want to increase rumour-mongering," he says.

Does he have any fear that the election will not be free and fair, considering the rumours doing the rounds about the Congress party's high-handed tactics? "We will keep our eyes open," says Shukla. "Also, the Election Commission is very alert about malpractices in Chhattisgarh. They will keep a vigil."

For V C Shukla, the most prestigious contest will be in Marwahi, where Chief Minister Jogi is the Congress candidate. Pitched against Jogi is Hemwant Porte, widow of Bhanwar Singh Porte, a popular legislator from Marwahi. Hemwant Porte left the Congress for the NCP earlier this month when she was denied candidature from Marwahi. The Porte family has some influence over voters in the region and she is considered a tough rival for Jogi.

But there is another heavyweight in the contest. The Bharatiya Janata Party's Nandkumar Sai, leader of the Opposition in the outgoing assembly, is also contesting the election in Marwahi.

This situation makes Shukla uncomfortable. He had tried to field a common candidate with the BJP, but things did not work out. "It would have been better if the contest had been straight," he says. "Now votes will be divided and Jogi will benefit."

'My enemy's enemy is my friend' is the doctrine that appears to be at work as Shukla finds shelter in diplomatic answers when the topic of discussion veers to the Dilip Singh Judeo bribery scandal. "The CBI inquiry has begun, we will comment only after the enquiry is over," he says.

Does this pussyfooting mean there is a likelihood of the NCP entering into a post-election alliance with the BJP in the event of a hung assembly in the state? "Let's wait for the results," says the veteran with a smile. "Then we shall see."

Image: Uday Kuckian

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