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GGP may spoil Congress chances in Chhindwara

By Bipin Chandran in Bhopal
May 06, 2004 18:28 IST
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The presence of the Gondwana Ganatantrik Party in the electoral fray in Chhindwara has made both the Congress candidate, Kamal Nath, as well as his opponent from the BJP, Prahlad Patel, nervous.

"The GGP's decision to field a candidate (Manmohan Shah Bhatti) can work against us," said a local BJP leader.

That's only part of the story. One of Kamal Nath's colleagues in the Congress, who has won the Lok Sabha elections from Madhya Pradesh twice and preferred not to be named, is elated at the hard time the GGP is giving Kamal Nath.

"The GGP has told us privately: 'We don't want him (Kamal Nath). We know we can't win, but we will do everything to see he can't (win),'" he said.

So why is everyone so afraid of the GGP?

In the 2003 assembly election, the GGP polled between 22 and 39 per cent of the votes in the six constituencies of the Gond tribal belt in the Mahakoshal region of Madhya Pradesh. Its statewide share was, however, under 2 per cent. Though the GGP won only one seat, it hurt the Congress' electoral prospects.

However, the BJP cannot afford to be sanguine about the GGP threat. The RSS -- which has a strong presence in Madhya Pradesh -- is trying to propagate the message that Gond tribals are aboriginal followers of Lord Hanuman.

In reality, these tribals follow their own rituals and worship 'Bada Dev'. In a bid to carve out a distinct Gond identity, GGP leader Hira Singh Markam is telling his followers that they should resist 'conversion' to Hinduism because their tribal identity is not synonymous with a Hindu identity.

In Chhattisgarh, Markam had got the GGP to support fellow tribal Ajit Jogi (Markam's party abstained from a confidence vote against Jogi in the Chhattisgarh Assembly in 2003).

However, the party's support base in Chhattisgarh is marginal. It is in Madhya Pradesh that the party has a strong presence.

Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee has visited the state twice and is expected to make a few more appearances once the fourth phase of polls are over.

On May 5, elections were held for 12 seats in the state, and 17 seats will have elections on May 10.

In the 1996 general election, before the bifurcation of the state, the BJP had won 27 seats, the Congress 8 and the BSP two.

In 1998, the BJP bagged 30 seats and the Congress 10. The Bahujan Samaj Party had fielded candidates in 28 constituencies.  In the 1999 Lok Sabha election, held after the bifurcation of the state, BJP had won 26 seats and the remaining 3 were with the Congress.

The Congress is leaving no stone unturned to improve its tally in the state. The state Congress leadership also expects Sonia Gandhi, Priyanka Gandhi or Rahul Gandhi to tour the state.

The party leadership feels that the Priyanka-Rahul factor would help it regain its traditional votebank.

While the original Congress constituency of tribals, dalits and kisans had shifted allegiance to the BJP in the assembly polls held last December, the Congress hopes that it will be able to reverse the fortunes. It is also expecting to regain some of its lost ground in the tribal belt.

Party leader and former chief minister Digvijay Singh, who is spearheading the campaign, points out that the party will improve its position in the state.

"We are certain to improve the tally this time in the state. There are many factors working in our favour, including the unfulfilled promises of the present government," Singh says. Singh's election campaign is centred around meetings in villages and areas where it saw major shift against it.

Meanwhile, the BJP is pitching its campaign on issues like corruption, failure of the previous government and the stability plank. Even Vajpayee, during his address in Khajuraho, had pointed out corruption as the main election issue.

The BJP is, however, aware of the 'Gandhi' factor. The party's internal assessment said there were about 12 seats in the state out of the 29 in the Lok Sabha, where it would have to make an extra effort to ensure a victory. 

However, BJP leaders are quick to point out that the only seat where its victory seems impossible is Guna, where Jyotiraditya Scindia is contesting for the Congress.

The BJP hopes to wrest two more seats from the Congress and take its tally to 28 seats this time.

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Bipin Chandran in Bhopal