The Telegraph
Since 1st March, 1999
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Sympathy, why' Asks Shukla

Patewa (Chhattisgarh), April 14: Ajit Jogi is in hospital, but Vidya Charan Shukla would rather that he were in jail.

Locked in a fight with Jogi to retain Mahasamund, the constituency 55 km south of Raipur that has been his fief, Shukla is holding back no punches. If there was conjecture that the 76-year-old warhorse would revise his strategy following Sunday’s road accident that left Jogi badly injured, Shukla has put it to rest.

Describing his opponent as a “fraud”, a “fake”, a “criminal”, a “habitual liar” and “casteist”, Shukla declared that he was “a person whose ultimate destination is jail”.

Asked if he had considered softening his stance, the former Union minister told The Telegraph: “Why should I' Mr Jogi has got hurt in an unfortunate road accident. That is all. But that does not absolve his misdeeds. I want to inform my voters what he is all about.”

In Patewa, Shukla — who has gone from the Congress to the NCP and now to the BJP — tells the 200-strong crowd: “A vote to Jogi means a vote to Sonia Gandhi, the lady who consciously did not opt for Indian citizenship for over a decade. A vote for me is a vote for Atal Bihari Vajpayee, a thoroughbred Indian and experienced leader.”

The new BJP convert has been parroting the party line on all issues, save one: Bofors. Asked if he thought Sonia had any role in the Bofors scam, he said: “No, I do not think so.”

Shukla’s “clean chit” to Sonia is significant. As parliamentary affairs minister in Narasimha Rao’s regime, Shukla had made some important statements in Parliament relating to Bofors. In fact, his remark that “crucial Bofors’ papers are on their way” had hugely upset Sonia loyalists and strained Sonia-Rao relations. Moreover, he is perhaps the only BJP leader of stature to defend Sonia on Bofors.

In public meetings, Shukla, a seven-time MP from Mahasamund, is carefully projecting himself as a future minister in a Vajpayee cabinet, pointing at his vast experience as minister for information and broadcasting, external affairs and parliamentary affairs. “It is certain that Vajpayeeji would be Prime Minister again. If you vote for me, he will use my talent in Delhi,” he says.

Shukla’s desire for a “Delhi role” is a carefully thought-out strategy. Apart from enhancing his stature, it also signals to an edgy state BJP — said to be less than enthusiastic over his candidature — that he would not have much role in state politics.

In Raipur’s BJP circles, there is open talk that if Shukla wins, he would emerge a key player and cast a shadow on chief minister Raman Singh. Shukla, first elected to Parliament in 1957, is a household name in Chhattisgarh.

Theories of sabotage are also circulating. It might sound incredible but there are many takers —including Shukla — for a story doing the rounds that when Jogi was being taken from a local hospital to Mumbai, he told Union minister and the BJP’s Raipur nominee, Ramesh Bais, to “take care” of Mahasamund. Like Raman Singh, Bais does not enjoy a “comfort level” with Shukla.

If Congress and BJP leaders are to be believed, Jogi is masterminding his poll strategy from the Mumbai hospital where he underwent surgery on Sunday. His wife, Dr Renu Jogi, has resigned from state service to “go door to door” while son Amit — notorious as Chhattisgarh’s Sanjay Gandhi — has been asked to take charge “behind the scenes”.

The Jogi camp is counting on the sympathy factor. Campaigners are circulating the former chief minister’s appeal, released from hospital, which repeats Chandrababu Naidu’s line that he was saved “because god wanted him to serve the people of Chhattisgarh”. The Andhra Pradesh chief minister, after surviving an assassination bid near Tirupati, opted for early Assembly polls saying god wanted him to serve another term. Footage of an injured Jogi and his speeches on Adivasi honour and pride are also being played.

Shukla’s supporters say sympathy is nowhere in sight and accuse Jogi’s followers of circulating “exaggerated and orchestrated reports” of prayer meetings being held for his recovery. “Once a fraud, always a fraud,” smirked one.

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