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February 20, 1998


Constituency Profile/Chhindwara, Madhya Pradesh

The fierce battle of the kamals

Chhindwara witnesses one of the fiercest fights between the Congress and the Bharatiya Janata Party this election. Former Union minister Kamal Nath is making every effort to avenge his defeat in the 1997 by-election by former Madhya Pradesh chief minister Sunderlal Patwa.

For Kamal Nath, the contest has assumed the proportion of a do-or-die battle. With leaders of both sides pumping in all the resources at their command, people fear an outbreak of poll-related violence.

Chhindwara was a Congress stronghold till the 1997 by-election, when for the first time since 1952, it slipped out. Even during the Janata Party wave of 1977, Chhindwara was the lone seat in Madhya Pradesh that stood by the Congress.

Kamal Nath, one of Sanjay Gandhi's Doon School friends, represented the constituency for 16 years, from 1980 to 1996. He could not contest the 1996 general election after the Congress leadership denied him a nomination following allegations of involvement in the hawala case.

He then persuaded the Congress leadership to give the ticket to his wife, Alka Nath, who went on to defeat her BJP rival, former MP minister Choudhary Chandra Bhan Singh, by 21,000 votes.

Alka Nath resigned from Parliament six months later to allow her husband to contest the Chhindwara seat and return to Parliament. It was a disastrous move. Kamal Nath was defeated by BJP veteran Sunderlal Patwa by more than 37,000 votes.

In the fight between the two kamals -- Kamal Nath and the BJP's lotus symbol -- the campaigning styles are a study in contrasts. The former Union minister depends on his loyalists and, unlike the 1997 by-election, has kept most senior Congress leaders and ministers at bay.

Kamal Nath carefully barnstorms villages -- there are nearly 2,000 villages in this sprawling constituency. The Congress appears far ahead in the campaign with every nook and corner of the constituency flooded with banners, buntings, cutouts, and posters of all shapes and sizes.

The Congress leader has also changed his style of functioning by involving the party workers at the grassroot level in his election campaign.

Promising to usher in a new era of development, Kamal Nath reminds voters of the work he has done in the constituency. Party workers highlight his role in the setting up of industries to generate employment, educational institutions, and enlarging the area under soya bean cultivation.

Even Nath's detractors admit in private about the transformation of the constituency during his years as a member of Parliament.

The septuagenarian BJP candidate's supporters are also running a well-organised campaign in their traditional style of mass contact. Senior BJP leader and former Rajya Sabha member Kailash Narayan Sarang is spearheading Patwa's election campaign. Apprehending trouble during the election, Sarang said his party had identified some polling booths where its workers would maintain a close vigil.

Both Kamal Nath and the 72-year-old Patwa have some problems in their campaigns.

Some local Congressmen, including former minister Vijay Kumar Patni, have switched loyalties to the BJP. Nath insists that it will not make a difference as they were known "opportunists."

In last year's by-election, the BJP apparently benefitted from the electorate's resentment at Alka Nath's resignation. The BJP also sprang a surprise by fielding one of its heavyweights and turning the situation in its favour. But this time the element of surprise is missing and the resentment among voters has subsided.

A few local issues dominate the election scene. The BJP is harping on the Multai police firing in the neighbouring Betul district, in which 19 people were killed during a farmers's agitation last month.

The administration has seized some posters showing bodies of those killed in the police firing, which the BJP had used in its campaign.

The widespread damage to crops in the recent hailstorm, unseasonal rains and the plight of the farmers burdened with heavy loans and interests has also become an election issue. While the BJP blames the state government for having failed to provide proper relief to the farmers, Kamal Nath has stressed the need to save the farmers from a debt trap.

Kamal Nath says he has maintained regular touch with the voters even after Patwa won. He claims the people are now convinced that only the Congress can protect the poor's interests and develop the region.

Patwa says Chhindwara has lagged behind in development despite returning a Congress candidate from 1952 to 1996. He is convinced that the situation is in the BJP's favour.

Sonia Gandhi and her son Rahul, and several BJP leaders, including L K Advani and Atal Bihari Vajpayee, have addressed well-attended election meetings, indicating great enthusiasm among the voters.

While the main contest is apparently between the Congress and the BJP, 15 other candidates also are testing their electoral fortunes from this constituency, which has an electorate of over 1 million, including 489,000 women.

The 32 per cent tribal population, including 22 per cent Gonds, is expected to play a crucial role in the outcome. The electorate also comprises 21.5 per cent scheduled castes, 27 per cent other backward classes (OBC), 6.50 per cent minorities and 12.5 per cent upper castes.

In the last election, Patwa polled 51.37 per cent votes as against 45.75 per cent secured by Kamal Nath. In 1996, Alka Nath won the seat by polling 46.69 per cent of the votes.

Comparing the various assembly constituencies that make up Chhindwara, Patwa won more votes in Damua (scheduled tribe), Pandurna, Parasia (scheduled caste) and Chauri Saunsar assembly segments, while Kamal Nath polled more votes than his BJP rival in Amarwara (ST), Chhindwara, and Jamai (ST) segments. Interestingly, all eight assembly segments are held by the Congress.

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