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Apple-belt raja is the pick of the campaign season

Rohru, Feb. 23: “Cold wave for BJP, hot wave for Congress” reads graffiti on a Maruti van meandering to this apple-belt town on the banks of the Pabbar.

Rohru is all decked up and raring to elect four-time former chief minister and scion of the erstwhile Rampur-Bushehr princely state, Veerbhadra Singh, to the Himachal House.

“All is well here, raja saheb will win but the BJP has worked for this constituency. They will get 50-100 votes more than last time,” says Chanchal Chauhan, a shop owner.

The Congress’ hugely popular raja polled over 80 per cent of the votes in 1998 and looks set for a repeat here. He had romped home at the hustings in 1990 and 1993 as well. With the Congress riding the twin waves of anti-corruption and anti-incumbency, he looks a winner already.

“I am not spending much time in the constituency. But my supporters will ensure my victory. There is too much resentment against the BJP government,” says Singh, pointing to the scandals and the spiralling debts dogging the Dhumal regime.

He is confident the people will root for the Congress. “There is no other alternative. All the looting by Dhumal’s men will be investigated. Atalji ka pyara, Himachal bechara,” he chuckles, playing on the BJP slogan “Atalji ka pyara, Himachal hamara”.

Government employees are angry with chief minister P.K. Dhumal and his BJP ministry for several things: withdrawing LTA, introducing contributory pension and retrenching staff. Allegations that government jobs are being given to youths from Jalandhar, Haryana and Orissa have not helped either. “There should be a change of guard,” fumes Anil Sharma, a government employee.

Singh is the most sought-after Congress politician in Himachal now. Virtually the only crowd-puller, he is busy ensuring he is easily accessible to all, even candidates handpicked by his detractor and state unit chief, Vidya Stokes. “One has to do everything for the sake of the party. Himachal ko bachana hai. Pehle bahumat, phir androoni baatein,” Singh says, careful not to comment on party infighting.

Although the Congress has not named a chief ministerial candidate, Singh’s loyalists are unperturbed. “In a Congress government, Veerbhadraji only will become chief minister. There is no leader like him in Himachal,” says Ranja Chauhan, a Deoli shopkeeper.

With D-Day nearing, more and more Stokes supporters are making a beeline for Singh. Last week, Harbhajan Singh Bhajji, the Shimla candidate, and Sohanlal Thakur, first time candidate from Sundernagar, approached him. “We have come to seek raja saheb’s blessings and are also requesting him to address our rallies to boost our prospects,” says Sohanlal.

The rush for Singh began after rallies by most central leaders were washed out. “It does not matter who they got the tickets from, when it comes to campaigning they will bank on Veerbhadra Singh,” beams the raja, hinting at the rivalry with Stokes.

In Rohru, however, it is a straight fight between the Congress and the BJP. “I did not get many votes last time,” says Khushi Ram Balnatha of the BJP. “But I have built roads to link villages. Nobody can say that Rohru was a Congress seat.”

But Singh’s supporters think otherwise. “The issue here is not of raja saheb’s victory, but the margin of the victory,” says Ram, a Congress loyalist.

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