The Telegraph
Since 1st March, 1999
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Rebel plays spoiler in Cong bastion

Ambikapur (Surguja), Nov. 30: It’s a term borrowed from Bihar, but Rashtriya Janata Dal chief Laloo Prasad Yadav’s appeal here and the presence of outsiders in this Congress bastion has everyone talking about the “vote katwa”, where a third candidate eats into the votes of a leading contender.

“Ambikapur has always seen a straight fight between the BJP and the Congress, which enjoyed the support of the local palace. But rebel Congress candidate, Prabodh Minj, who is fighting on a Nationalist Congress Party ticket, has given rise to the vote katwa syndrome in a big way. Minj is expected to eat into the votes of the Congress and thus help the BJP,” says Alok Kujur, a disheartened Congress supporter.

The BJP has fielded newcomer Kamal Bhan in this Chhattisgarh town, 325 km north of the capital Raipur.

“We have elected Madan Gopal Singh five times, but he has hardly been of help. Can you imagine such an old Congress legislator not being minister when his juniors have joined the Ajit Jogi ministry' In a new state, ministers matter a lot and then you have this vote katwa going full throttle,” Kujur rues.

The NCP’s Minj is the dark horse in the contest. “I sought a ticket from the Congress because the old man (Madan Gopal) was not delivering. But they refused. Yes, I am contesting on an anti-Jogi, anti-Madan Gopal plank. And remember I am not a vote katwa. I will win because the traditional Congress voters will support me. The Congress needs to be shown its right place in Ambikapur,” says the Christian tribal candidate.

A Congress campaign manager trashes Minj’s arguments. “It is wrong to say that Madan Gopal has not worked. Why then have the people elected him for five terms' Voters are not fools. They know a candidate’s capability. Madan Gopal’s efforts have made a big difference in the villages,” he argues.

But BJP supporters are on cloud nine. “Ambikapur ko Congress ka garh batate hain. Unko isi baat se khush hone do. Is baar inka garh toot jayega. Abhi to yeh shuruwat hai. (They say Ambikapur is a Congress bastion. Let them be happy with this thought. This time we’ll demolish their fortress. And that will only be the beginning),” says Rajesh Agrawal, who has been campaigning for the BJP.

Ambikapur, which has 48 per cent tribal voters, is aware that a triangular contest looms. “A section of the palace is also rumoured to be backing the NCP candidate. That will definitely make a difference because people have not been able to shrug off their fixation with the former royals. Every vote gained by Minj will be a clear loss for the Congress because the BJP’s vote base is unlikely to move,” says the Congress supporter.

But Minj says the palace is backing the Congress nominee. “I do not have any tacit support of the palace. It is all a rumour. People are coming out in my favour on their own. I have taken up the cause of medical students in a big way but they were beaten up by Jogi’s police. How can you have a three-year medical degree course' This state has 150 universities, some of them running from single rooms. Jogi has failed to explain the education scam,” he said.

Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee’s recent visit here has also gone down well with the urban electorate. “He gave a call for parivartan (change). He did not talk like Laloo Prasad (Yadav) who only entertained the crowd. Ambikapur has remained neglected despite its people supporting the Congress for such a long time. When we were part of Madhya Pradesh, they said this place was too far away from Bhopal. But why did it not get priority after the formation of Chhattisgarh' This is a question people are asking,” said Mohammad Yunus who runs a garment shop here.

The Congress is pinning its hopes on the “intelligence” of the voters, who, the party claims, understand the difference between the “real” and the “vote katwa”. The NCP says voters are intelligent enough to realise that electing Madan Gopal is futile. The BJP may be sitting pretty, but breaking a “bastion” is a “tall order”, party leaders admit.

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