The Telegraph
Since 1st March, 1999
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Outsider who' Sonia or Karuna

Janjigir-Champa (Chhattisgarh), April 18: Hot would be an understatement — at 44 degrees Celsius, it is scorching. But in Mopka village, it is festival time.

A group of singing and dancing girls has been brought to entertain the villagers, mostly Dalits and tribals. They start with a devotional song, shift to Chhattisgarhi folk music before switching gear to full-throated raunchy numbers like Dilli ki sardi and Kanta laga.

As the crowd cheers the dancing girls, Charan Das Mahant makes an appearance. The drumbeats and the dancing stop, but the three-time Congress MP signals them to carry on. The girls resume singing but pick up a more “politically correct theme” — a remix version that appeals to voters to opt for the “hand”.

Mahant, a slightly built man seen as a local strongman with interests in as diverse spheres as liquor trade, construction, transport and agriculture, is facing a challenge in this district from Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee’s niece Karuna Shukla.

A little later, Mahant begins his speech. It ends in exactly five minutes but not before he has asked the villagers not to vote for an “outsider”. He says Karuna has no understanding of local problems and of how villagers are suffering on account of frequent attacks from wild elephants, which have injured 29 people and damaged about 245 dwellings.

“The Centre and the state have no time to control the wild (tuskers). They are busy claiming India is shining. Do you thinking the government’s achievements are shining'” he asks, adding that the only thing shining was the scorching sun which has made campaigning more difficult.

Mahant’s “outsider” slur has infuriated the BJP. While soft-spoken Karuna, a party national vice-president, does not like to react, her lieutenants have pounced upon Mahant’s “audacity”. “What does Mahant think of his own leader' If there is any one outsider, it is his leader Sonia Gandhi,” says Indira Sharma, a member of the BJP’s media team from Delhi who is supervising the campaign.

Mahant has remained unfazed. He says Sonia is not contesting from Janjigir. “Soniaji is a bahu of the entire country and she is respected all over,” he says while insisting that Karuna is indeed an “outsider” who should be rejected by the voters. “There is no comparison between her and Soniaji. The BJP is frustrated over the prospect of defeat.”

Local residents say Mahant is well entrenched. As a leader who belongs to the Other Backward Classes, he is counting on the support of the 50 per cent-plus voters who share his social background. The Kosa weavers in Seoni village in Champa tehsil would vouch for it.

“We Dewangan castes are highly indebted to the Congress,” says weaver Ram Avtaar, whose house is plastered with pictures of Jawaharlal Nehru, Indira Gandhi and B.R. Ambedkar. “Hamare purkhe Congressi hain aur hum bhi hain (Our ancestors supported the Congress and we would do the same).”

The BJP alleges that Mahant is doling out pre-poll goodies that range from liquor, payal and Gukulo, a local brand of intoxicating material that is brushed on teeth for a “kick”.

In Janjigir, it is not an unusual sight to come across persons of all age groups rubbing their teeth in the middle of the afternoon, early evenings and on other occasions, but nobody would confirm or deny that it has anything to do with Mahant’s generosity.

Asked if she had come across any complaints about free liquor distribution, district collector Nidhi Chibbar says: “There has been no complaint of such nature. I am hearing about it for the first time from you.”

Karuna’s supporters dislike any mention of her relationship with Vajpayee. “So what'” says her campaign supervisor. “Karunaji has been in politics since 1980 when Vajpayeeji was not Prime Minister. She has come through the ranks as a district, state and now a national-level functionary,” she says.

Janjigir has witnessed the presence of high-profile leaders like deputy Prime Minister L.K. Advani, Vajpayee and Sonia. But voters seem more concerned about basic issues.

“Will there be any respite from sporadic attacks from wild elephants'” they ask. Or, would Kosa weavers get a better deal'

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