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CM & Rahul face popularity test

Naveen Patnaik and Rahul Gandhi

Bhubaneswar, March 30: The battle for the state’s tribal heartland begins in right earnest tomorrow with Congress vice-president Rahul Gandhi and BJD supreme and chief minister Naveen Patnaik scheduled to hold road shows and public meetings in the undivided Koraput district.

While the Gandhi scion is scheduled to address gatherings at Semiliguda and Umerkote, Naveen’s road show would pass, among other places, through Bissam Cuttack, Rayagada, Koraput and Pottangi. The region, part of the infamous KBK belt, accounts for two key Lok Sabha constituencies — Koraput and Nabarangpur — which comprise of 14 Assembly segments in all.

Naveen, who campaigned extensively today in the Maoist-dominated Chitrakonda and Umerkote, also part of undivided Koraput district, is all geared up take on Rahul, said BJD sources. “He is ready for the challenge. Tomorrow’s campaign will decided who, between the two leaders, is more popular among the tribals of the region,” said a senior party leader.

The Congress is pinning great hopes on Rahul, who, during his public meeting at Salepur in February, had once again sought to position himself as the champion of state’s “exploited” tribals describing himself as their soldier. Sources said after addressing the public meetings at Semiliguda and Umerkote, the AICC vice-president would interact with another group of tribal people at Bansalpada in Koraput district.

“The achievements of the UPA government and Congress’s push for land rights to the tribals will be the central theme of Rahulji’s speeches at Selimiguda and Umerkote,” said Pradeep Majhi, the party’s candidate for the Nabarangpur Lok Sabha seat. The Koraput seat is being contested by veteran Giridhar Gamang, who represented it eight times before losing to the BJD in 2009.

Sources said Rahul was also likely to raise the issue of the tribals’ battle for their rights in the Niyamgiri hills, part of which falls in the undivided Koraput district. “It was largely because of him that the project for the mining of bauxite in Niyamgiri, which would have disturbed the habitat of endangered Dongria Konds, was rejected by the Centre,” said a veteran Congress leader.

The chief minister, on the other hand, would be focusing primarily on the achievements of his government, stressing on the Re 1-a-kg rice scheme and free ambulance service that has helped his government break the Congress’s decades-old stranglehold on the state’s tribal belt.

“While Rahul’s visit is unlikely to make any impact, the chief minister’s campaign is set to tip the scales in our favour. Because of the welfare schemes launched by our government, Naveen babu is seen as something of a hero by the tribals of the state,” said school and mass education minister Rabi Narayan Nanda, who is the BJD candidate from the Jeypur seat in Koraput district.

Naveen, during his campaign in the area tomorrow, is unlikely to miss the opportunity of reiterating his charge of Odisha being deliberately neglected by the Centre.

“With Rahul also campaigning in the district, the chief minister is certain to raise the issue,” said a party leader.

The BJP, too, is set to intensify its campaign in the KBK belt with its top leaders, Narendra Modi and Rajnath Singh, scheduled to address public meetings there. While Modi’s public meetings at Balangir and Rourkela are scheduled for April 4, Rajnath Singh would be touring Kotpad, Bhawanipatna and Berhampur two days ahead of him.