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|November 20, 1998||
A campaign without the fizz
Chindu Sreedharan in Raipur
Raipur doesn't take kindly to elections anymore. It has had enough in the last two years, what with two Lok Sabha elections one after the other, and so stubbornly refuses to acknowledge the third, even if it's for the state assembly.
Which is why I have this unpleasant feeling creeping up on me: has somebody fooled me that there's an election happening in Raipur?
Now, now... don't blame me for such silly thoughts. What else do you expect me to gather when, 17 hours after landing in this would-be capital of the would-be state of Chhattisgarh, I see locals going around unshivering, with nary a touch of that dreadful disease called election fever.
In the five minutes it has taken me to reach Jaistum Chowk from my hotel, I saw only five election banners. Here, in the heart of the city, where I am now contemplating the plight of the polls, where I am dreaming of the good old days when loudspeakers blared incessantly and walls flowered banners and posters, a lone Atal Bihari Vajpayee smiles benignly at ordinary Indians from atop a scaffolding. Though larger than life, the cut-out is hardly competition to, say, one of All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazagham chief J Jayalalitha's in Madras. And diagonally opposite the PM, some 50 metres away, Brijmohan Aggarwal, the bespectacled legislator from Raipur and BJP candidate for Raipur Urban, stands, as befits a man of humbler stature, on the ground with folded hands, attempting to look good-natured.
That is all. These are the only poll paraphernalia that catch you at first glance. I put the area under careful inspection and locate a few more banners. The rest of the poster-able space is hogged by the film Soldier. A crowd of Bobby Deols, all looking unpleasantly beefy in the upper arms, stares at me through dark glasses. Shucks, what's happening? Is he also contesting?
Purushottam, the gentleman of a paperwallah whom I seek out for clarification, soothes my fears. Nope, Bobby isn't contesting. The fight is between Aggarwal and Congressman Paras Chopra, veteran Shyama Charan Shukla's man.
Chopra, a chartered accountant by training, has, local pundits tell me, as much chance of making it to the assembly as former prime minister H D Deve Gowda has of failing to doze off at the sight of a chair. The constituency therefore looks all set to return Aggarwal to the assembly for the third time.
For his first victory, Aggarwal had defeated Congressman S C Jain with a shaky margin of 2,000-odd votes in 1990. Last time, in 1993, he did better: Rajkumar Sanghvani, again of the Congress, found 11,500 votes going the wrong way.
Meanwhile, Purushottam is telling me about the campaign: "Prachar to ho raha hai, lekin pehle se bahut kam hai (campaigning is on, but on a lower key than earlier days)."
I am to hear similar thoughts from 15 more people before the day is over, but I don't know that now. I smile gratefully and prepare to launch into my repertoire of cliched election questions. But my friend, probably recognising the glint in my eyes, pre-empts that. "Elections do not make any difference, and I am not interested in politics," he says firmly.
Neither am I, I assure him. All I want is to know how the campaign is going, the why of its dullness -- I mean, what are elections without posters and graffiti and loudspeakers and jeeps and vans and politicians running around abusing each other, huh?
"The Election Commission has spoilt the fun of elections," comes Purushottam's reply after a few seconds of thought. "They say don't do this, don't do that, don't spend... earlier, this area used to be covered with posters and graffiti. There used to be a [street-corner] meeting every five minutes."
The Commission's order to file expense accounts every three days is another damper on the campaign. As are the 1996 and 1998 Lok Sabha polls, which have sapped the regular contributors of election funds. "After shelling out for the previous polls, even rich businessmen are feeling the pinch," says a political analyst. "The new government brought nothing for the people, so they are also feeling put off with the whole idea of polls and politicians. Then again, the unseasonal rains, and the drought which the Chhattisgarh region experienced before that, have wreaked financial havoc."
All of which translates into this kind of a heat-less election campaign.
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