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November 23, 1998


In Armani glasses, the Jain from Mandsaur makes his bid for power

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Archana Masih and Vaihayasi P Daniel

Sunderlal Patwa is concerned about the flies trapped in his air-conditioned Maruti Gypsy. Stealthily, his white towel reaches for them, then he lowers the window to release them outside. One by one, the flies are safely liberated in the dry, dusty air outside.

For the Jain from Mandsaur, on the Rajasthan border, this election campaign is one of the many he has faced in a 41-year political career. And he goes about it with natural ease, as he travels through the villages of Raisen district in his Bhojpur assembly constituency.

"Sahab, I assure you, in this area you have nothing to worry about. I take full responsibility for your victory," says Naresh Patel, a prosperous farmer and the BJP's campaign convener in Bhojpur. A ready reckoner on the back seat, Patel provides information about the mood of the area, the Congress sarpanchs of certain villages, and the almost ruined soyabean crop in the region.

"More than half the crop was ruined Sahab. The monsoon really played games with the farmers," continues Patel. A wheat, tur dal, soyabean growing region, Patel adds that the farmers envisage a complete disappearance of soyabean from their fields in a few years.

Speeding at almost a hundred kilometres an hour on National Highway 12, Patwa has a long day and eight villages ahead. Once off the highway from Bari, 97 km from Bhopal, roads no longer remain roads -- the short and narrow tarred stretch with numerous corroded holes, while the rest ran into kilometres of muddy track. "You cannot do without a four wheel drive here, only a Mahindra or a Maruti Gypsy can survive this," says Raj Chauhan after successfully maneuvering the vehicle through a slushy, shallow pit.

"This stretch was even worse before, people called it the Mazma Gola (digestive) -- you could travel on the road after a heavy meal and find the food well digested half way through it," laughs Patwa, and goes on to explain how work on the roads started under his chief ministership (1990 to 1992) had remained where it was in the last five years.

In a crisp dhoti-kurta and Armani glasses, Patwa makes a purposeful, alert figure, folding his hands high above his head as he acknowledges stray passerby, catching up on news at the next village and keeping a keen eye on party vehicles trailing him, lest they are left behind.

"I am coming to my constituency for the first time during this campaign. All these days I have been travelling throughout the state," says the man who will in all likelihood be chief minister if the BJP wins Wednesday's election. Patwa has just returned from Chhindwara -- the Lok Sabha constituency he lost to Kamal Nath in February -- the night before.

An orange turban sporting enthusiast springs from the jeep ahead and clears the way with a shrill whistle. Kutnasir village flutters with BJP flags as curious and excited people surround the car.

It takes Patwa little time to gauge the anxiety among the organisers having arrived half-an-hour ahead of schedule. It isn't the villagers' fault that the band arrives half way through his speech!

"I don't want to make a speech because I don't have the need to introduce you to the BJP. You know the Congress has neither niti (strategy), niyat (good intentions) or neta (leader). Look at Sonia Gandhi -- I don't know where is she from. She can't speak Hindi, and what's worse, she can't even pronounce Indira Gandhi properly. She went to Pipariya, and was referring to Panchmarhi as Phasmari!"

Bhojpur, in the Vidisha parliamentary constituency, with a 163,878 strong electorate, returned Patwa to the assembly in 1993. After he won the Chhindwara Lok Sabha by-election against Kamal Nath in 1996, the BJP retained Bhojpur in a 1997 by-election. Dominated by 25 per cent Scheduled Castes, 25 per cent Other Backward Castes, 5 per cent Scheduled Tribes and 15 per cent minorities, the constituency includes 600 villages.

"People say I have not showed my face in Bhojpur, but this is my family and families don't have such restrictions. Do they?" asks Patwa, whose government was dismissed after the Babri Masjid demolition.

Yet, some people in the next village are not impressed. Khaparia, with an electorate of 1,200 to 1300 has one school, with only one teacher for 300 students. The closest hospital, villagers complain, is 25 km to 30 km away. Poor roads make transportation worse.

"We voted en masse for the BJP thrice, but nothing has really improved. Not that the Congress was any better. Whatever welcome you see is just a pretence. I am quite disgusted with the whole thing," says Sahibsingh Chauhan, a resident.

Undeterred, Patwa keeps presenting his case from village to village. Baktara, Bharkuch, Gadarwas… Many villagers confess they have not seen the BJP candidate for a long time. After winning the seat in 1993 by 29,168 votes, some complain Patwa has not set foot in the villages since.

Fed up with both the BJP and Congress, several youth in the area have opted to work for the recently launched Ajeya Bharat Party. Floated by Maharishi Mahesh Yogi -- he of the Beatles and Mia Farrow fame -- the ABP has fielded 100 candidates this election. Headed by Mukesh Naik, a former minister in the Digvijay Singh government, the party's candidate in Bhojpur is Tarachand Sahu.

Also in the race are Vijay Dhakad (Congress), Banshilal (Janata Party), Gangaram Gaur (Apna Dal) and Bannulal (Gondwana Ganatantra Party). Only the BJP and Congress hoardings, posters and vehicles are visible in the November sunshine though.

"Congress hatana hai, BJP lana hai," Hanumansingh Kalakar, the village poet who aspires to perform for Bhopal Doordarshan, completes a series of lyrical couplets. The villagers clap. The sitting MLA, Ram Kishan Chauhan, gives an aggressive account of how Patwa was responsible for Vajpayee’s victory at the Centre.

Aware of what would appeal to the villagers most, Patwa reiterates his commitment to the cause of better roads, water, health and insurance for crops to farmers. "Saheb, even though the Congress provided water supply to some of these villages, since there is no water outlet, there is a grave problem of waterlogging," reveals Patel.

"This time when we come to power, we will finish all these important requirements of this area. Had we completed five years like Digvijay Singh, your lot would have been better," Patwa reassured the villagers.

The Bharkuch meeting sees a small flurry of activity in the middle of the crowd. Sunderlal, a spirited villager, decides to make his way to meet his namesake on stage. Patel, springs to his feet, and slips a ten rupee note in the old man’s palm. "Whenever I come here, I always give him some money for his drink. It takes care of his entire day," the BJP activist grins.

From one village to the other, Patwa seems to have a special fondness for his concluding line. One that manages to evoke some kind of movement in the crowd. "Every youth, every child in this village is a Sunderlal Patwa, if you give your vote to me, it is like voting for yourself -- a vote for someone like you, from among you."

Yet, the villagers appear disillusioned with Patwa and his Congress rival, Dhakad. Neither really cared for the improvement of their lot, the villagers complain, yet they voted in election after election, hoping that things might just improve.

"We have no land, we work as labourers for Rs 35 in the fields, no one has given us anything. What difference does it make who wins from here?" adds Bhogram, a harijan from Khaparia as he chews tobacco in his neat mud house.

Patwa continues his tour, smiling, accepting garlands, coconuts, delivering brief speeches in the midst of music, song, dance and celebration -- at times like a groom, at times like a returning hero.

In Bari, 40 km away, Kamal Nath unleashes a volatile attack on him.

"Sunderlal Patwa ki halat patli hai (very worrying situation). The price rise, communalism and their errors at the Centre has done the BJP in. Everybody knows they have no chance," says the MP from Chhindwara hoarsely.

A couple of kilometres away is parked Kamal Nath’s helicopter – commanding an equal attendance as his public meeting. At the BJP office across the road, a few party workers hang around – already in the final hours of the campaign, their excitement will be over soon.

Assembly Election '98

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