Saturday, Nov 29, 2003
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By K.V. Prasad
The approach road to this region, which shares its borders with Gujarat, from Dhar is an endurance test for the person behind the wheel, fellow travellers and the vehicle itself. Vast tracts of the 100-km tar-coal road exist only in patches.
While the sorry state of the roads and the power crisis has overshadowed every other poll issue in the State, in these parts of the Malwa region, the Congress is facing a BJP offensive on the issue of religious conversions.
With over three-fourths of the about 12 lakh voters being tribals, the Sangh Parivar has succeeded in making a dent in the Congress bastion through two of its wings, the Seva Bharti and the Vishwa Hindu Parishad. There has been a subtle attempt to blend issues of development with spread of "religious awareness."
Although the BJP claims it has nothing to do with the strategy, local leaders say that the party hopes to improve its tally in the five reserved seats of Alirajpur, Jobat, Jhabua, Petlawad and Thanda due to "greater awareness." At present, the party has a lone sitting MLA, Nirmala Bhuria (Petlawad), daughter of the Congressman-turned BJP leader, Dileep Singh Bhuria.
BJP leaders say that the Congress hold over the region has slackened mainly due to spread of "education and awareness" among the tribals by the Seva Bharti in the past three years. The BJP district chief, Manohar Sethia, says that the outfit "worked in the interiors and effectively stopped conversions" and that the Hindu `sangam' attended by a large number of tribals here in January 2001 shows which way the wind is blowing.
Such has been the campaign on the issue that the Gujarat Chief Minister, Narendra Modi, while addressing a well-attended rally at Thandla on Thursday, demanded that the Congress president, Sonia Gandhi, clarify whether she had a "secret meeting" with missionaries in Mizoram, Chhattisgarh and Madhya Pradesh.
Shantilal Padiyar, a local Congress leader, dismissed the charges and said that the BJP's claim of a "wave" in its favour was "imaginary."
He accused the BJP of carrying a false campaign on the conversion issue. Yet, the public perception on lack of development puts the party at a disadvantage.
Interestingly, the socialist leader, Baleshwar Dayal, held the Thandla seat till 1977. His protégé and the Janata Dal (United) leader, Sharad Yadav, campaigned here with the hope of regaining the party's hold over farmers.
Power crisis and the controversy over the procurement of soya bean have queered the pitch for the Congress as a majority of the people of the area depend on the land for their livelihood.
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