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|February 19, 1998|
'Hoshangabad has never been kind to newcomers'Archana Masih in Hoshangabad
The Congress pandal (tent) in Hoshangabad bore the usual Congress chhaap (stamp). A cluster of chappals outside, round pillows, white linen floor, framed pictures of the Congress greats, one minute's silence in their honour...
"In there are the handful of Congress wellwishers left in this town," laughed the man at the computer-cum-STD booth across the road. Inside, the visiting AICC observer took stock of the situation.
"Aapke shahar mein ek chor ghoom raha hai. Main Congress ka sipahi bol raha hoon -- jagte raho... (There is a burglar moving about your town. I am a soldier of the Congress, and I've come to caution you )"
Avadhesh Kumar Singh, the AICC observer, warned his party workers about RSS propaganda techniques, "Pamphlets, in vile language, will reach you -- and you won't know when or where it came from."
Ward representatives spoke about campaigning in their respective wards and voiced their grievances. One complaint stood apart, and conveyed a gloomier side of the Hoshangabad Congress party. "Leaders only think of us during election time. Otherwise, no one bothers about us," grumbled one party worker.
A grouse which many say is the main reason for the party's poor performance in Hoshangabad in past elections. Workers themselves confess that inter-party differences caused the previous defeats.
Of the eight assembly segments in the constituency, seven are held by the Congress. Only one -- Itarsi -- is held by the Bharatiya Janata Party. Itarsi, incidentally, is where three-term sitting MP Sartaj Singh of the BJP lives.
Rameshwar Neekhra of the Congress lost to Sartaj Singh in the past three elections. The absence of party unity has been looked upon as the primary reason for Neekhra's defeat.
"The workers were not happy with the candidate who was given the ticket. One can't say that Sartaj Singh has been winning, it is our party that has been losing," says Congress supporter Raj Kishore Dikshit.
He believes that the ignorance of the party leadership towards workers at the grassroot level has also affected the party's performance. "The BJP's strongest asset is its cadre-based structure. Apart from that, Congress workers are not as aggressive as their BJP counterparts," says Dikshit.
Compared to the BJP workers, the Congress has fewer active members in the town. Sushil Diwan, Congress worker and owner of a gas agency, says, "It is true that our party workers are not as dedicated as the BJP." Congress workers also feel that, unlike the BJP, they sometimes have to pay their own ministers to get their work done.
"I have worked for the party for nearly two decades at the district level, but I have never been given a chance to rise above that level. Had I been with the BJP, I would definitely have been a state leader by now," says one Congressman. Though still a die-hard Congress supporter, who thinks the party will definitely win this time, his dissatisfaction can barely be concealed.
However, local leaders say intra-party differences have been stemmed by Arjun Singh's presence. His stature as a national leader is seen as a tool that can unite party workers.
Yet, irrespective of the claimed unity, there remains a sense of dissatisfaction amongst the Congress workers. With many of Arjun Singh's campaigners coming to Hoshangabad from Bhopal and elsewhere in the state, the locals appear to have been marginalised.
"When Arjun Singh came to file his nomination, most of his accompanying vehicles had Bhopal member plates," grumbled a driver at the loss of business for local taxi owners at election time.
Nevertheless, local Congress workers gloss over their discontent. "It is not that we are not equipped to handle campaigning on our own," says district Mahila Congress president Kusum Tomar. "But Arjun Singh's well-wishers will rally around him at this time. It is natural."
In a constituency deeply influenced by socialist H V Kamath, Hoshangabad is a socialist belt. With a population comprising of 90 per cent Hindus and 10 per cent Muslims and others, it is the Hindu vote which will be the deciding factor. Thirty per cent of the Hindus are Thakurs -- the segment seen as Singh's support base. But since this includes Jats, the votes can get divided between the rival candidates.
Though most confess Sunday's election as a close encounter, locals feel Sartaj Singh may vanquish the Congress candidate. "A voter's mentality is such that he prefers his own people whereas, until this election, Arjun Singh must not have visited Hoshangabad in 20 years," says Kalyan Jain, a local journalist. "Hoshangabad voters don't know him. His only identity is the Congress party."
What has impressed the voter -- a point the Congress does not refute -- is the proper utilisation of the Rs 10 million MP's fund by Sartaj Singh. His detractors, however, point out that Sartaj Singh has never raised a single point in Parliament about the development of Hoshangabad.
With farmers forming 70 per cent of the electorate, Sartaj Singh distributed musical instruments for bhajan and kirtans apart from cricket kits and hand pumps in villages. Gestures, which have made an impact on the rural mind.
"Arjun Singh is restricted to his bullet-proof car. His elder son Abhimanyu has been ineffective in establishing contact, while his father and younger brother Rahul are away," adds Jain.
Many feel the Congress has become immensely unpopular because of its policies at the state level. The Digvijay Singh government has levied property tax, water tax between Rs 35 and Rs 40 per month, an annual fire tax of Rs 180 (irrespective of whether the municipal corporation has a fire engine or not) and profession tax. "It's a sort of corollary to income tax; reminds me of the gaziya during Akbar's reign," says a mathematics teacher.
Many in Hoshangabad feels if Arjun Singh is defeated again, it will spell doom for his political career.
While Dikshit says Arjun Singh is a man of few words and a survivor, Ashish Jain has a contradictory assumption. "Arjun Singh is not Madhavrao Scindia. Scindia can stand from any party and win. No one can take Gwalior from him. Arjun Singh lost Satna. As for Hoshangabad, it has never been kind to newcomers."
Photographs: Jewella Miranda
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