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February 26, 1998


Constituency Profile/Kalahandi

'Our lives are a burden. No water to drink, no water for our fields...'

M I Khan in Kalahandi

No water to drink. No jobs to keep the locals from migrating en masse. But as far as the Congress and BJP are concerned, Kalahandi is about votes. About making promises, about cajoling the voter into going to the polling booth on the day...

"We know that politicians are visiting us because it is election time, once the election is over they won't even set foot in here till the next election," says Ramesh Danusena of Mednipur village near Bhawanipant, the district headquarters of Kalahandi. "What to do? This is our curse!"

"Our lives are a burden. No water to drink, no water for our fields, no development projects to provide jobs for our young people... and politicians who want only our votes, nothing more..." Nilamani Nayak, of Keshipur village near Junagarh, is under no illusions.

Not surprisingly, therefore, the upcoming election evokes very little enthusiasm among the populace.

And this, in turn, is beginning to cause concern in the camp of former federal minister and Congress candidate Bhakta Charan Das, as also among the supporters of BJP nominee B K Deo, scion of the Kalahandi royal family.

For Das, seeking re-election, there are the twin problems of voter apathy and the non-cooperation of the local Congress leaders. The latter owes to the fact that it is merely a month since Das resigned from the Samajwadi Janata Party and joined the Congress ranks. Thus, the fact that he has been given a ticket is seen, by local Congressmen, as a reward for disloyalty at the expense of faithful partymen.

Whatever wave there is -- in context of the overall apathy, a 'ripple' is a better descriptor -- seems to favour the BJP, especially in the urban areas.

However, poll analysts in the region say it is liable to be a neck-to-neck race. If the BJP has popular sentiment supporting it, then Das has his personal rapport with tribals and Harijans, and an enviable organisational strength, going for him.

"It is a race between the raja (Deo) and the praja (Das)," says Gajadhar Nayak of Keshipur village near Junagarh. Interestingly, the local MLA for two terms is none other than Deo himself. "He (Deo) has never bothered about our problems, it has always been Das who has supported us and given us help when we needed it."

The party hopes that the mammoth rally addressed by BJP president L K Advani could just about generate that edge of enthusiasm the party needs to sweep the seat. "People are in a pro-BJP mood," says a senior aide of Deo's. "But at the same time, we are not taking the Congress lightly, we are working flat out here."

All said and done, the underlying anger in large sections of this electorate could well hold the key -- and that anger cuts across party lines. As you move away from Junagarh to the rural parts of Kesinga and Bhawanipatna, you find that the average voter is disillusioned with both parties, and in no mood to even exercise his franchise.

"Why should we?" demands Kishor Chand Sahoo of Indiramal, near Nurla block in Bhawanipatna. "We starve, there have even been starvation deaths in this area, and politicians come to us only when they need us, they are never here when we need them. Why should we vote for any of them, and help them earn personal riches while our lives get even more miserable?"

It is this question that, in the final analysis, could tilt the scales one way or the other. For while both candidates are assured of their respective vote banks, the angry, uncommitted voters far outnumber the party faithful -- and which side this segment will jump is seen as the key to the Kalahandi equation.

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