The Telegraph
Since 1st March, 1999
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Bullets at the back, ballot battle ahead

Akhnoor, Sept. 22: In military terms, it is one of the most crucial sectors facing Pakistan. If India suffers reverses in this region, Jammu and Kashmir could well turn into a passing remark in history books. In military terminology, it is “dangerous” and needs to be guarded every second.

Akhnoor today is basking under the frequent visits of politicians, a breed unheard of when tensions ran high with Pakistan even a month ago or six years earlier when the National Conference stormed to power. Today, it is witness to one of the toughest of political battles in its history. The region goes to vote on September 24.

Minister of state for irrigation and flood control Govind Ram Sharma, who had won the seat in 1996 with a narrow margin of 232 votes defeating the BJP’s Ram Saroop Sharma, is facing a stiff challenge from four heavyweights this time and is, perhaps, fighting the most crucial battle in his over-50-year political career.

With 77,955 voters spread over 86 polling stations, the Akhnoor Assembly segment is witnessing a five-cornered contest among Govind Ram Sharma, Ram Saroop Sharma (BJP), Madan Lal Sharma (Congress), Dr Gafoor Ahmed (BSP) and Kuldeep Sharma (Shakti Dal). Five others are also in the fray.

This seat was a traditional Congress bastion till 1987 when Govind Ram, contesting as an Independent, defeated Dharam Paul Sharma, the National Conference-Congress candidate. Dharam Paul had won the seat four times in a row — 1967, 1972, 1977 and 1983 — as a Congress candidate. In 1996, he finished a poor fourth polling a mere 7443 votes.

Govind Ram, who is seeking a straight term from the seat on the “development works” he claims to have carried out in the area, faces a tough challenge from the BSP’s Gafoor. “I want to teach a lesson to Govind Ram,” says Gafoor. “The minister has literally taken the people for a ride and has neglected the constituency completely till the polls were announced. He has failed on all counts, from development to employment generation. He does not deserve to be re-elected.”

Gafoor is banking on Dalit and Gujjar votes. He resigned as medical officer, Akhnoor Subdistrict Hospital, a couple of days before filing his nomination papers, and is being wooed by all parties. The Dalits and the Gujjars comprise nearly 25 per cent of the voters in the segment. In a close contest, the only loser will be Govind Ram.

Gafoor’s credibility on this border belt stems from his insistence on charging only Rs 10 as consultation fee as compared to other doctors who took anything between Rs 70 and Rs 100.

According to Gafoor, Govind Ram knew who was charging how much but did not take action. “I was transferred from one place to another because I was making noises against doctors who were charging the poor heavily. In fact, the minister’s clinic was also making money at the cost of the people.”

The infighting in the BSP ranks over choosing a schedule caste as candidate could, however, mar Gafoor’s chances. Even then, the votes he is able to garner could spell doom for others, especially the Congress.

Ram Saroop Sharma of the BJP is equally kin to avenge his 1996 defeat. Ram Saroop claimed that in 1996, he had won the seat but was declared defeated with just 232 votes due to “manipulations”. “The people of Akhnoor will surely make me victorious with a thumping margin to avenge the injustice done with me.”

Equally harsh is the tone of Congress candidate Madan Lal Sharma who had secured a lead of more than 6,000 votes in the byelection to the Jammu-Poonch parliamentary constituency held this February.

Sonia’s rally in Jammu is expected to do wonders for Madan Lal. “This can prove to be a big advantage to Madan Lal and morale booster, too,” said Rakesh Mishra, a resident of Akhnoor town.

Although the National Conference had fared badly in three parliamentary polls held after 1996 here, Govind Ram is confident that history would not come in his way from making a hat-trick.

“I have done a lot for the people of Akhnoor, especially the women. They just can’t forget my contribution to the constituency,” he claims. The 36,376 women voters in the constituency, for whom Govind Ram claims to have done a lot, are expected to have the last laugh.

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