“Kamal Nath ek aandhi hai, Chhindwara ka Gandhi hai.’’ As the slogan rents the air at his penultimate campaign rally in Parasia on Tuesday, the union minister gets a little restless, perhaps worried about the import of the larger message.
While the sloganeers obviously have the father of the nation in mind, Nath has every reason to believe it could be misconstrued to mean his political bosses.
In this pocket borough, which he has represented for more than three decades, Nath means many things to his voters —sarpanch, MLA, MP, chief minister or messiah. There’s no mention of Sonia, Rahul or even the Congress,. It’s mostly Nath’s visage visible in the constituency, the only backdrop to his rallies.
He reminds his audience how backward the district was in 1980, when he parachuted here due to his proximity with Sanjay Gandhi, and takes credit for everything that has changed for the better: roads, bridges, factories, rails.
“There was nothing in 1980. Even in 1984 bullock carts used to ply here. The whole village would come out if they spotted a jeep. Today if even I come here in a jeep, they shut their doors to avoid pollution. Today you can go to any corner of the country and proudly say Hum Chhindwara se hai,’’ he says.
There are many takers for his rhetoric among the audience, which crowds in to see him land in a helicopter on a helipad behind his huge bungalow in Shikarpur.
The 67-year-old does not even name his BJP rival Chaudhary Chandrabhan Singh, whom he has already defeated twice in the past, and instead targets Chief Minister Shivraj Singh Chouhan calling him a liar and a kalakar who keeps a coconut in his pocket so that he can announce new projects.
Nath’s rivals, however, accuse him of buying votes and voters by spending lavishly in the run up to the campaign, and wowing the crowds with his helicopter sorties. Nath declared assets totalling more than Rs 187 crore, making him the richest candidate in the state.
In 2003, the BJP led all assembly segments in the Chhindwara Lok Sabha constituency but in the general elections a few months later Nath emerged victorious. Nath has lost the seat only once to the BJP and his wife represented it once briefly in the mid-1990s.
Chouhan appeals to voters to end the BJP’s exile here. “Even Lord Ram’s vanvas ended after 14 years but the BJP’s ordeal has continued for 34 years,’’ the CM said at BJP rallies Monday while appealing for votes with folded hands.
The RSS has been active in the state for the last few days but it’s the Narendra Modi factor and Shivraj Singh Chouhan’s image that the BJP believes will help turn the tide.
Leader of the opposition in the Lok Sabha Sushma Swaraj told a rally in Umreth Tuesday that even Indira Gandhi and Sanjay Gandhi lost elections and there is no reason why Chhindwara should remain with Congress. “It’s not a fight between two individuals but two ideologies,’’ Sushma said, without naming Nath.
“Logon ki tendency ho gayi hai,’’ says Ramkumar Dhakre, a tailor in Bhimsen village trying to explain why people should vote for Nath. “I don’t know why,’’ he adds.
“Jabse yahan baccha bolta hai woh Kamal Nath ka naam leta hai,’’ says Anwar Ali, a municipal councillor in Parasia, about the Congress leader’s popularity. His friends say Nath offers jobs, never turns anyone away, including political rivals, and helps in treatment of hundreds of patients in Nagpur hospitals.
“They identify every helicopter with only Kamal Nath even if someone else is using it,’’ says another supporter insisting that his helicopter has landed in all 2000 villages that make up the constituency.
“It’s like emotional blackmail. In lieu of the money he spends on voters’ treatment, he seeks votes,’’ alleges Ravi Vishwakarma, a former Congress Seva Dal block chief who recently defected to the BJP.
Raju Varma, another BJP leader, says Nath spends so much on every election that even municipal elections have become expensive.