The Outer Delhi parliamentary constituency, India's largest in population terms, is poised for an interesting clash between two heavyweights of the Jat community.
The Bharatiya Janata Party's Sahib Singh Verma, Union labour minister, is pitted against Congressman and former MP Sajjan Kumar, who has been acquitted of the charge of instigating and co-ordinating the anti-Sikh pogrom in the capital in the wake of then prime minister Indira Gandhi's assassination in late 1984.
In an exclusive interview with Chief Correspondent Tara Shankar Sahay, Verma, a former chief minister of Delhi, discussed the contest, the problems of the constituency, and his vision for it.
What is this controversy over the distribution of free school bags?
I have sufficient evidence to prove that the Delhi government of Chief Minister Sheila Dikshit resorted to this unethical distribution of free school bags to attract votes. It is a flagrant violation of the electoral code of conduct and I made up my mind to bring it to the notice of the Election Commission.
How did you react when you first learnt about it?
It is very serious because when the scandal came to light she blamed me in front of the media! That's not the right thing to do. Firstly, you cannot fool the people that you are distributing school bags free of cost when the elections are only a few days away. Secondly, why wasn't such a purportedly charitable act done, say, six months ago, when the elections were not knocking at the door? Plain and simple, the motive behind the move was to indirectly purchase votes.
Are you hopeful that the Election Commission will take action if the blame is pinned?
I hope so. Otherwise every vote-grabber will feel emboldened to purchase votes through unlimited money power. I think it is a shame when the person in question is a chief minister, and that too in the National Capital Territory of Delhi.
But Sheila Dikshit says your allegation is unfounded.
The school bags listed the achievements of the Delhi government and, therefore, you don't need a brilliant scientist to deduce who was behind the fiasco. Let them trot out their excuses.
What have you told voters in outer Delhi where you are seeking re-election?
My message to them is very simple. I say, have me re-elected if you want to continue to be a share-holder in the country's Union government. Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee's National Democratic Alliance government has various achievements under its belt, but everyone knows that we need another term to complete our unfinished tasks.
Do you think the voters are responsive to you?
Of course! I am confident of retaining this seat. Despite the massive size of this parliamentary constituency, I have nursed and developed it as its MP as well as the former Delhi chief minister.
What are the main problems in your constituency?
As I pointed out before, its all-round development is my main agenda, whether it is roads, water, electricity, unplanned and illegitimate mushrooming [of unauthorised colonies], overpopulation, everything has to be looked into and a solution found.
I think I enjoy the confidence of the people in this constituency since they know that I have done everything within my power to help them out.
What do you feel are the chances of your Congress rival Sajjan Kumar?
Normally, I wouldn't have commented, but since you ask, there is this burning resentment among the Sikhs who are in their thousands in this constituency. I don't think that the unfortunate occurrence on the last day of October 1984 and its bloody aftermath will ever be forgotten by them. This feeling emphatically persists. I will leave it at that.
Could you be a little more specific?
Sikh leaders have told their community members in this constituency that they should not vote for my main rival [Sajjan Kumar]. You can find out, they are saying, 'Sikh jis ke sar pe pagri, jinke mooh pe dahri, woh unko vote diya toh laanat hai" [Those wearing turbans and sporting beards, if you vote for him, be damned].
But Sajjan Kumar had won in 1991.
Oh, I am the sitting member. I was an educationist for 15 years till 1989 although I have consistently been in politics. I know my constituency inside out and I am proud that I am not only a leader of the Jats, but also of other people living within it. This includes a substantial number of people [from eastern Uttar Pradesh and Bihar] who have settled here in the last few years.
What was your experience as Delhi chief minister?
I got to learn many things for which I am thankful. That is why I say no Delhi chief minister can pull wool over my eyes.
What was your major achievement as Union labour minister?
I think my initiative in making changes to labour laws to safeguard the interests of the labourers in the unorganised sector was significant. But much more can be done.
You are alleged to have 'hijacked' India's opening batsman Virender Sehwag on his wedding day for drawing political mileage.
Everybody is unanimous that Virender Sehwag belongs to the entire country. He is a national treasure, a national asset. So where is the question of hijacking him? I was one of the many guests wanting to congratulate him on his wedding day, but a different picture was painted.
Photograph: RAVEENDRAN/AFP/Getty Images | Image: Rahil Shaikh