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The Rediff Election Special/ Prem Panicker

The choice is clear... it's confused

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I wish like hell I hadn't had that opium. Now I have got, in that order, a splitting headache and a story that, the more I try to make sense out of, the more complex it gets.

It all happened while I was sitting outside a 'tea shop' in Nokha -- a rural constituency some 75 km outside Bikaner proper. It was close to noon, and in a clearing a little away from the tea shop, independent candidate Chunnilal Indaliya was expected to get on the stump.

A few of his workers were busy putting together a makeshift stage -- little more than planks of wood on a square base made of tables. I cornered one -- Sundarlal, his name turned out to be -- and got chatting, trying to get a fix on the political scenario.

What I got, instead, was a little slab of opium. Which -- rather foolishly imagining it would help me shake the tedium of being on the road since five in the morning sans food -- I tucked under my tongue in the approved fashion.

A while later, Indaliya arrived. A journalist from Bombay apparently took precedence over the 100 or so locals gathered to hear him speak, so we settled down on the dais, with half the crowd thronging around, for a chat.

"I won my first election from here in 1967, as an Independent," he said. Thirty-one years as an Independent? I asked in some wonder. Weren't you approached by any political party?

He was. His next win was in 1972, under the aegis of the Congress. "I left in 1977," he said, "in protest against the Emergency, though Indiraji Gandhi herself requested me to stay on and help strengthen the party."

Maha-impressed, I pushed for the rest of his bio-data. Turned out that he had gone back to Independent status in 1980 -- and lost. Contested under the Dalit Mazdoor Kisan Party in 1985 -- and lost. Joined the Janata Dal in 1990, got the ticket, and won. He then became a Congressman, and lost in 1993.

And now you are an Independent again? "Oh, I am in touch with Madam Sonia Gandhi," he assured me. "I have written to her, assuring her of my loyalty to the Congress and to her policies," he told me, proudly.

So if you win, you will rejoin the Congress? "Abhi kuch keh nahin saktha hoon," the craggy-faced veteran assured me. "Yeh sab rajniti hain, itna aasaan nahi hai! (Can't say anything yet. Politics is not so simple.)"

Wondering what the official Congress candidate would make of an "Independent" who was in "constant touch with Madam Sonia", I made tracks for a private residence -- of Ramlal Vyas, an ardent Congressman -- where the official Congress candidate was supposed to come for lunch.

Rewatram Chauhan, the candidate in question, was in situ. And very dismissive of Indaliya's claims. "Arre, anybody can write to Madam Sonia, but has she written back to him?" he sneered. "I am the Congress candidate and we are going to win this seat. Where is the question of Indaliya joining us?"

While Chauhan chalked out the afternoon's schedule with his acolytes, I quizzed Vyas about the candidate's antecedents. Turned out that Chauhan is the present MLA -- only, in 1993, it was the BJP's lotus symbol he flaunted on his campaign jeep.

Opium addles the brain -- particularly on a stomach as empty of nourishment as mine was at the time. But even opium, I increasingly realised, takes second place to the political confusion prevailing in Nokha. Why did you leave the BJP, I asked Chauhan when he got a moment to spare. "I resigned early this year, because I was fed with the misgovernance of Bhairon Singh Shekhawat," he averred.

An impressive little speech, that -- spoilt somewhat when, in response to my questioning, the Congress candidate revealed that he had joined the BJP on the eve of the 1993 election because the Congress party had refused him a ticket. "I am and always will be a Congressman," Revatram Chauhan assured me. "1993 mein jo hua, who tho sirf rajniti tha... (What happened in 1993 was just politics.)"

Last on the list was Govind Ram Chauhan, and a willing native helped me run him down to earth shortly before the official BJP candidate set off into the interior villages for the evening's campaigning.

Having already spoken to an Independent-Congressman and a 'lifetime Congressman' who is the BJP MLA, I was rather wary about what queer fish I would find this time round.

Turned out, the BJP candidate is the queerest of all -- he is, believe it or not, an executive committee member of the Dalit Sena, bossed over by Janata Dal leader Ram Vilas Paswan.

Having heard Paswan's fiery tirades, both in Parliament and outside, against the BJP, I was somewhat puzzled -- do the JD and the BJP have some kind of sub-rosa alliance going here?

"No, no," said Govind Ram Chauhan, "there is no alliance, the BJP is contesting on its own."

But you are an office-bearer of the Dalit Sena, I persisted. "Yes, I was with the state unit, but I am now with the BJP."

You resigned? "No," said Chauhan. "Why should I resign? Let Paswan sack me, if he dares!" he added, pugnaciously.


Chauhan believes he is going to be a runaway winner. "Bhairon Singhji's government has done a lot for this area."

Pressed for details, he waved a vague hand. "A lot of developmental work has been done. The Congress did nothing in 40 years, but the BJP has introduced many schemes for development. As you know, it takes time for the results to show -- but five years from now, this area will be very well developed, that is my goal."

That, in brief, was Nokha. The choice confronting an estimated 70,000 voters is simple:

    1. Govind Ram Chauhan, a Janata Dal subsidiary's office-bearer and the official BJP candidate.

    2. Rewatram Chauhan, current BJP MLA and official Congress candidate.

    3. Chunnilal Indaliya, an Independent in "close touch" with Madam Sonia.

You pay your money, and you take your choice. Meanwhile, excuse me, I have a splitting headache to nurse.

Assembly Elections '98

The Rediff Specials

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