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|February 16, 1998|
'Earlier people voted for me because of my father's name. But now they are voting for me because of my achievements'
Syed Firdaus Ashraf in Aligarh
The goodwill the lady has earned among the electorate is, without exaggeration, astounding: Be it Brahmin, scheduled caste or Bania, in Aligarh they all want to vote for Sheela Gautam, the Bharatiya Janata Party candidate.
"Of course, I am voting for her," says Ram Sonkar, a tea stall owner at Ramaghat, in a tone which leaves no room for doubt, "India can have a stable government only under Vajpayee's leadership. Its condition will improve only if we have MPs like Sheela Gautam."
Aligarh, which witnessed bloody riots in the late 1980s and during L K Advani's rath yatra in 1990, has remained peaceful since Gautam became the MP in 1991. The Ram mandir is not an issue this election. But a distinct BJP wave is clearly visible in most Hindu areas. Party workers are upbeat as they feel that Captain Baldev Singh, the Samajwadi Party candidate, has blotted his reputation in Aligarh after he left the BJP to contest on a SP ticket.
Captain Singh -- whose filmstar son Chandrachur Singh campaigned for him briefly this time -- joined the BJP after he lost the election in 1991 against Gautam by a narrow margin. He was then contesting on a Janata Dal ticket. A Thakur by caste, he expected a BJP ticket this time, but was disappointed. Whereupon he joined the SP.
Although Gautam won this seat by nearly 100,000 votes in 1996, she may face a setback if the 200,000-strong Thakur community, along with the 250,000-Muslim crowd, favour Captain Singh.
The 1.2 million-electorate, besides Muslims and Thakurs, comprise 200,000 Brahmins, 200,000 Jats and 150,000 Jatavs among others.
Says Yasin Qureshi, a local SP leader: "Gautam's advantage in 1991 was the Ram wave. In 1996, her main opponent was Abdul Khaliq from the Bahujan Samaj Party. So, except Muslims and some Jatavs, no other community voted for him while all the other communities voted for her."
The constituency is divided into five assembly segments -- Aligarh city, Baroli, Inglar, Khair and Koil. Of these, three constituencies are with the BJP, one with the Loktantrik Congress and the last -- Aligarh city -- by the SP.
But Gautam's candidature has its critics, too. Mainly among the Muslims who, despite agreeing she is a better nominee than Captain Singh, feel she is a right person in a wrong party.
"Gautam often calls at the Aligarh Muslim University hospital to ask the wellbeing of patients," says a doctor there, "But our community will not vote for her as she is a BJP candidate."
Her major achievements are starting up two daily train services from Aligarh to Delhi, and building new schools in villages.
Gautam left the Congress in 1990 when Mulayam Singh's government fired at kar sevaks in Ayodhya.
"I felt it was not right to open fire at innocent people," she says, "The Congress which was supporting the Mulayam government should have taken some action against it."
Born in a Brahmin family in 1931, the daughter of a freedom fighter and Congress minister , Mohan Lal Gautam, she began her career in politics in 1980 by becoming the Aligarh Congress women's wing president.
"She was always helpful to the poor right from the beginning," recalls Gauri Shankar, who was once a Congress supporter but now diligently votes for the BJP.
Another advantage which the BJP candidate has is the respect which her father had earned in Aligarh. During his tenure, he had built three hospitals and many roads there.
"Earlier people voted for me because of my father's name. But now, by God's virtue, they are voting for me because of my achievements," Gautam says.
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