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The Rediff Special / Syed Firdaus Ashraf in Mumbai
April 14, 2004
Petroleum Minister Ram Naik is getting actor Amitabh Bachchan to campaign for him, though not personally.
At the Bharatiya Janata Party's Maharashtra headquarters at Nariman Point, Naik, the party's candidate from Mumbai North parliamentary constituency shows reporters a VCD containing clips from Shahenshah, in which Big B plays a corrupt police official who turns away people seeking help, asking them to approach Naik if they want their work done.
"I have served Mumbai North constituency for five terms," he says later. "It is one of the largest constituencies in our country. It stretches from Goregaon to Palghar. It is nearly 112 km long. I know every nook and corner of this place."
He says people relate to him very easily, compared to Govinda, the actor contesting the constituency on a Congress ticket.
Govinda is not even "a resident of my constituency, as he stays in Juhu, which falls in Mumbai North West constituency. So I don't think he is a serious contender," he adds.
Naik may be confident, but Govinda is giving BJP workers sleepless nights as journalists hound them with just one question: What are Naik's chances this time?
It obviously is a question they are not used to hearing.
Naik has never faced any formidable challenge from his Congress rivals in the last five elections.
In 1989, Naik defeated Chandrakant Ghosalia by more than 100,000 votes. In 1991, he beat B A Desai by 92,000 votes and in 1996, he thrashed Anup Chand Shah by a more than 200,000 votes. However, the margin against Ram Pandagale in 1998 fell drastically, as he won by only 75,000 votes. In 1999, he again beat Ghosalia by more than 100,000 votes.
Of the six seats in the city, the fight in Mumbai North is turning out to be the most interesting. Once a Congress bastion, it went to socialists in the 1970s. Today, it is a Shiv Sena-Bharatiya Janata Party stronghold, as five out of the six assembly seats here are with the saffron combine.
Govinda's case seems to be different, as wherever he goes in the constituency, voters -- primarily Maharashtrians, Gujaratis, North Indians, Muslims and tribals -- flock to see him.
Many of Naik's political opponents like labour leader Sharad Rao and veteran socialist Mrinal Gore are supporting him.
Also, Govinda has age on his side, as there is a perception that voters are now weary of seeing Naik.
Govinda is also getting a sympathetic hearing because he was born and brought up in Virar, which falls under the constituency.
BJP activists wonder if voters will remember 'Rambhau's' contributions in setting up the Mumbai Rail Vikas Corporation. Residents are angry with the fact that he did little to improve the frequency of trains during rush hours. Another complaint is that he did not do much to create jobs.
"Ram Naik was minister, but he did little to improve the state of railways in his constituency. The four tracks promised to commuters by him has been a distant dream till this day for people staying in the far off suburbs of Mumbai. We are still travelling on two-track railways, whereas the entire city travels on four tracks," says Ghanshyam Dube, a resident of Nallasopara, which falls in Naik's constituency.
Naik's image has also taken a beating following the petroleum scam. Never in his political life have allegations of corruption been leveled against him/ This is the first election he will face the voters in the aftermath of scandal.
The other factor that may go against Naik is summer vacation.
"A lot of Naik's Gujarati and Maharashtrian supporters go on holiday [in April]. If there is a low turnout then Naik will surely suffer," admits a BJP worker.
Govinda started his campaign in appropriate style by catching a suburban train to Virar, where he grew up. He got tremendous response not only from the voters, but also the media.
He never thought of travelling in a train for 18 years, Naik says, adding the actor got this idea only after deciding to contest the election.
Govinda's secretary Shashi Prabhu denies the charge. "Govinda has kept in touch with Virar even after becoming a star," he says. "He has made it a point to visit Virar every year in spite of his busy schedule for the last 18 years. So it is wrong to say that he thought of trains only now."
Govinda says he does not understand what the fuss is about. "I felt like travelling by train. I bought a railway ticket and travelled like any other commuter. Why make an issue out of it?"
He is modest about his chances. "I cannot comment on my chances, but I am here to do work for the common man. I want to improve their living standards and I will try to do my best if I get elected," he says.
The actor is having to contend with the fact that having Sonia Gandhi as the Congress chief does not often reap dividends.
"Voting for Govinda means you vote for Sonia Gandhi," says stockbroker Niraj Shah, a resident of Borivli, which is part of the Mumbai North constituency. "I won't vote for a foreign prime minister. There are many like me who like Govinda, but he is in a wrong party and supporting a wrong leader."
"Govinda had campaigned for Shashi Prabhu in a local election but could not get him elected. People might be coming to see him in large numbers but when it comes to voting they will only vote for Ram Naik," says Atul Bhatkalkar, a state BJP leader.
Photograph: Ranjan Basu/Saab Press