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Bhopal to decide fate of Uma Bharti

By Anirban Roy (Bhopal, September 18)

Despite the overcast skies and chilly winds, Chief Electoral Officer Vijayavargeye and district officials heaved a sigh of relief when polling began this morning in Bhopal. Since the last two days heavy rains had lashed the region so massively that the Election Commission had to shift the elections in adjoining Vidisha and Hoshangabad constituencies to September 28. Till late last night officials were not certain if voting would take place, if at all. More worried were the camps of the contestants.
In Bhopal, BJP's Uma Bharti is pitted against Congress Seva Dal chief Suresh Pachauri, who is currently a member of the Rajya Sabha and former hockey Olympian Aslam Sher Khan, who is contesting on the NCP ticket.

Polling in progress in Bhopal (Pics: Anirban Roy)
Polling in progress in Bhopal on September 17 (pix:Anirban Roy)

Since morning voters of old Bhopal have been turning up in large numbers, especially in the gas affected wards. In contrast, the voters of new Bhopal are slow to come in. By noon over 30 percent of the voters in old Bhopal had exercised their franchise. Since morning, BJP candidate Uma Bharti was engaged in "Jansampark" in the constituency. Congress candidate Suresh Pachauri, who returned to Bhopal this morning, was also making rounds of the city. Till now there have been no reports of any incident in the constituency.

The mood of the voters on the polling day is divided. Salim, a resident of Old Bhopal says that Bhopal will vote for its own candidate- Suresh Pachauri of the Congress. "Atleast he stays here amongst us and we are able to approach him with our problems. Will Uma Bharti stay in Bhopal if she gets elected? What guarantee is there that she will not desert Bhopal once she gets elected?", he asks. Another resident of old Bhopal, Mohammed Yunus was angry with the Congress for not having done anything for the gas-affected people of Bhopal. He said "Raahat to de sake nahin to ab aafat banne aa gaye hain. Aapas mein sab mil bantke khayenge, aur hamen sub bhool jayenge (They could not provide us any relief and have back now to create more trouble for us. They will all sitdown and divide the loot and will forget us once again)."

Map

Barring a few hoardings, flags and banners, the city seems to have resigned to its fate - of water logged streets and potholed roads. BJP candidate Uma Bharti has promised flyovers and Narmada water to the residents of Bhopal, which has made her somewhat popular. Others are not far behind in making tall promises. Suddenly there is concern for the victims of the Bhopal gas tragedy. But the victims are totally indifferent and seem resigned to their continuing misery. A long wait of 15 years, nearly 10,000 casualties and official apathy have made them stoic perforce. Yet, when it comes to exercising their franchise they are eager.

The calm waters of the lake do not reveal the strong undercurrent of electoral passions in the state capital. All you require is a little provocation to draw anyone into a heated political debate. It is easy to identify the suporters of each party the moment you divert the debate towards issues. Its Sonia's foreign origin, Vajpayee's image, supply of Narmada water to the city. But this is true only for the urban areas, excluding old Bhopal which is a predominantly Muslim area. Hit the road towards the countryside and the scenario changes. Out there the issues are the same as elsewhere; bad roads, irrigation, electricity and lack of development. On the road to Sehore villagers do not mince words. "Sonia's origins are not an issue. We also get our brides from outside," says Ramkishan, a farmer and adds,"Agar mudda yahi hai to kya Uma Bharti bahar ki nahi hai?

From whatever little one can discern, a clear polarisation has taken place. Bhopal Lok Sabha constituency has 15,75,000 electors. The assembly segments are equally divided between urban and rural areas with four seats each. Of the electorate muslims are the largest with 3.75 lakh followed by Brahmins, Kayasthas and OBC's with close to 2.5 lakh each. There are 60,000 state government employees having over 1.5 lakh votes and they can give a twist to the situation. More about that later.

In the rural areas and old Bhopal Muslims seem determined to vote for the Congress. However, Brahmins, who used to veer towards the Congress looks swayed by Prime Minister Atal Bihar Vajpayee, who addressed a massive rally here earlier in the week. For the main contestants senior leaders and film stars have campaigned here - Vajpayee, Pramod Mahajan, Sushma Swaraj, Nitish 'Krishna' Bhardwaj, Sikander Bhakt, Vinod Khanna and Hema Malini for the BJP and Sonia Gandhi, Arjun Singh, Kamalnath, Sunil Dutt and of course, Dilip Kumar for the Congress.

It is going to be close contest. Suresh Pachauri has done his homework well. Sanyasin Uma Bharti, in case she wins, would take larger credit since former Chief Minister Kailsh Joshi and Sunderlal Patwa have shown little inclination to boost her prospects. NCP candidate Aslam Sher Khan may at best cut into the Muslim support of the Congress.

The spoilers could be the disgruntled government employees who are up in arms against the Digvijay Singh government over the imposition of the professional tax.

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