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February 18, 1998


In Berhampur, the fight is between Jayanti Patnaik and Vajpayee

M I Khan in Berhampur

The Vajpayee factor is giving Congress leaders sleepless nights, in a constituency that is considered a Congress stronghold. The consensus is that the party may end up retaining it, but not before the Bharatiya Janata Party puts up a stiff fight to wrest it for the first time in 41 years.

"We are voting for Vajpayee, not for the BJP," says Rakesh Sahoo in Golanthara village near Gopalpur. While this view may not be as prevalent in the rural areas, the urban areas in the south Orissa constituency are solidly behind the BJP's prime ministerial candidate.

Even Congressmen, while accepting that the Vajpayee factor may result in a tough fight on their hands, hope that the BJP's organisation is not strong enough to convert this popularity into votes.

In the last election this constituency was won by then prime minister P V Narasimha Rao, who has been denied a ticket this time round for his failure to prevent the demolition of the Babri Masjid. In his place the Congress has nominated Jayanti Patnaik, Chief Minister J B Patnaik's wife and a Rajya Sabha MP, against BJP candidate Gopinath Gajapaty, a former Congress MP and scion of the Parlekhemundi royal family which falls within the constituency.

Despite Sonia Gandhi's presence, Vajpayee remains the prime ministerial candidate in this Congress stronghold which has not disappointed the party since 1957. After voting the CPI's Bijaya Chandra Das in 1952, Berhampur has remained loyal to the Congress, there being no deviation even in the tumultuous 1977 election.

Seventyfive-year-old S K Panda, who lives near Khallikote college in Berhampur town, says he will once again vote for the 'hand' without even considering other candidates in the fray. But a young rickshaw-puller, Arjun Panigrahi, in Gopalpur is very angry with the Congress. He pointed out, "Look at the roads and other basic facilities, the party has done little for this area. Voting for the Congress is a vote for corruption."

In Chatrapur block at Narendrapur village, a college student said the youth were solidly behind the BJP, while the older voters were with the Congress.

From Parlakhemundi to Mohana and Chatrapur to Gopalpur assembly segments, the fight is directly between the Congress and BJP, the latter being supported by the BJD. Although the Janata Dal and CPI-backed CPI-M candidate Ali Kishor Patnaik and the RJD nominee are also in the fray, they are unlikely to cut much ice here.

In fact, there is little hope that the CPI-M will pose any challenge to the Congress and Patnaik. "The CPI-M has no base here except in the CPI's pocket borough of Chatrapur, there is no other base intact for the Left," a Janata Dal leader said.

Unlike the BJP, Congress leaders are banking on the party's support base in the rural areas and the traditional Telugu voters in the city. Telugus, who constitute about 40 per cent of the electorate, have overwhelmingly voted for the Congress. "We Telugus in Berhampur have always taken pride in being associated with the Congress," says district Congress treasurer, P Chiti Babu.

Keeping the Telugu bidda (pride) factor in mind, Jayanti Patnaik repeats in meeting after meeting that she is contesting with Rao's blessings. Her husband certainly tried his best to get the former premier the seat, and only when his efforts failed did he ensure the ticket for his wife. Besides, she is trying to speak in Telugu, too. Even though the BJP claims it will get 50 per cent of the Telugu votes, "hardly 10 per cent of the Telugus will support it," said Raju N Rao near Chamakhandi.

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