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|February 20, 1998|
Stymied by Naxalite threats, candidates avoid interior Rajnandgaon
Congress leader and former Uttar Pradesh governor Motilal Vora is not happy with his constituency. Despite his distinct preference for neighbouring Durg where he lives, the Congress high command is fielding him from Rajnandgaon, much to the chagrin of local party leaders.
Shivendra Bahadur Singh, who has contested the parliamentary elections from this Naxalite-infested constituency in eastern Madhya Pradesh since 1980 and emerged victorious on three occasions, is not happy either. A member of the erstwhile royal family of Khairagarh, he is now contesting the same seat on a Janata Dal ticket.
Other contestants include sitting MP Ashok Sharma (BJP), the Bahujan Samaj Party's Takhanlal Sahu and Independents Kesarbai and Vijay Bahadur Singh. This Congress bastion has only been invaded twice -- in 1977, at the height of the anti-Congress wave, by Janata Party's Madan Tiwari, and by Sharma in the last election which saw 32 candidates in the fray.
Vora, who began his political career in Rajnandgaon, was denied the Congress ticket in 1996 because of the allegations against him in the hawala case.
Barring that blemish, Vora's political graph has seen him occupy important posts including that of the MP Congress president, chief minister, union minister and Uttar Pradesh governor. This, and his clean public image, is expected to give him an edge over his rivals.
Yet, Vora is suffering anxious moments, what with many local Congress members working for Singh's success.
The latter, who consider Vora an 'outsider', are upset because his followers from Durg are handling the campaign. Razak, a party leader in Khairagarh, also alleges that Vora neglected the constituency when he was chief minister.
Vora is banking on his high-profile image to garner the support of voters, who are looking for a representative who could draw the focus of the authorities to the area. Regional development has emerged as a key issue in the polls.
The poll boycott call given by the People's War Group notwithstanding, posters in support of the prominent candidates dot most villages. However, both the authorities and the political parties expect a low turnout in view of the Naxalite threat.
The lack of enthusiasm could also be attributed to the severe crop damage, caused by hailstorm and unseasonal rains. Migration of a large chunk of people in search for livelihood could reduce participation in the polls.
Devbrat Singh, Shivendra Singh's MLA nephew, feels the Naxalite call for a poll boycott might affect Congress prospects if the polling percentage, which is normally low in this tribal area, reduces further.
It has also had its affect on the candidates, who are avoiding the interiors and instead concentrating on towns and villages along the main road. With polling scheduled for February 22, agents of the political parties are still to begin door-to-door campaigning, says residents of several villages.
The police, meanwhile, have taken special security measures and deployed sniffer dogs and a landmine detection team. About one-third of the 1,296 polling booths in the constituency have been declared either sensitive or hyper-sensitive.
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