The Telegraph
Since 1st March, 1999
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Cricket in campaign flop show

Nalti, Feb. 24: A mobile stage on the trolley of a truck, tackily-dressed dancers jiving to blaring Bhangra being played by a professional DJ, posters and flyers being handed out to attract a crowd. This is not an MNC-funded roadshow but a rural campaign of the BJP rebels, who have floated their own party, Mittar Milan.

The hooting proves the show is a non-starter. “Bachhon ko bigar rahe hain (They are spoiling children)” is the common refrain from bystanders.

As the poll date draws near and the campaigning period — literally sliced to half, thanks to the weather — draws to a close, canvassing in Himachal Pradesh has trebled with the parties desperate to leave a final impression on the voters who remain, by and large, uninterested.

Roadside kirtan sabhas have been drawing larger crowds than most political rallies in the state as accusations of corruption and moral turpitude took centrestage. Local issues have hardly been addressed and most parties appeared bent on diverting attention. The World Cup has come in handy.

At Badaran, apart from listing the saffron government’s “achievements”, the BJP’s handbills carried a box on World Cup fixtures with India’s matches highlighted.

Further down the narrow road, the Congress candidate could be heard asking voters to pray for the Indian team’s success. “Bharatiya cricket team ko BJP banne se rokna hai. Unka kaam khelna hai, aapki aashaon ke saath khelna nahi hai. Congress ko vote do aur phir dekho cricket team kaise khelti hai (We have to stop the cricket team from turning into a party like the BJP. Their job is to play the game, not play with emotions. Vote for the Congress and then see the transformation in the cricket team),” said Sukhvinder Singh, to cheers from the crowd.

“It (the fixtures) is a service to the people of my constituency,” explained the BJP candidate from Nadaun, Babu Ram Mandyal. “They (the handbills) were printed over a month ago. The people have liked my style as I have refrained from using caricatures of politicians with liquor bottles and women in my posters. The people of Himachal have not liked the allegations hurled on us. They will let the world know how they feel when the results are declared on February 26,” he added. A handful of supporters agreed in unison.

But Sukhvinder did not. “We are fighting for control of the state. It is proper to use any means to lure voters,” he said. “Apart from orchestrating violence to win elections, everything else is acceptable. Punjab is an example.”

With the Election Commission keeping a close watch on the expenditure of each candidate, liquor, which has been Himachal’s staple sop to lure voters, has this time been conspicuous by its absence.

“The problem is that unlike other states, Himachal is very well connected by roads. Take, for example, Hamirpur. It has the highest density of roads in the world and is also chief minister Prem Kumar Dhumal’s district. It has become difficult to transport liquor there. Instead, we are now sending milk pouches so that children in far-flung places can benefit. Since women are going to play a major role in this election, it is better to play safe than be sorry,” a Congress leader said.

However, contrary to popular belief that the charges of corruption levelled by the Congress against Dhumal alone would bring the party together, rural Himachal still swears by local issues — poverty, unemployment, health and education.

“Himachalis are very sensible voters and cannot be taken for a ride. With the polling date nearing, both the Congress and the BJP have started talking about employment. The issue is being raked in now as the mudslinging earlier had not helped either party secure support. This election will throw up a lot of surprises for both major parties,” said Som Datt, a Kullu resident.

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