It’s 9 am on the final day of campaigning, and the crowd on the ground floor has not stopped growing. On the first floor of the home in Bayang village is the man they want to meet. In a small room with five others, O P Choudhary looks at lists of booth workers. Suddenly, Choudhary steps out of the room, descends the steps, and is almost mobbed by those waiting. “Ye humaara kaam karega,” an elderly woman says as she pushes ahead to meet him. The prodigal son who was a bureaucrat, has become the prodigal son, the politician.
Until two months ago, Bayang village in Kharsia constituency knew Choudhary as the boy that grew up on its streets and went on to become an IAS officer, who won praise for his work in Dantewada and Raipur when he was collector, even winning the Prime Minister’s Award For Excellence in Public Service for the Education City in Dantewada. And then, Choudhary announced that he was joining the BJP and was eventually declared the candidate for the party. The odds are steep, for Kharsia is the bastion of Umesh Patel, son of Congress stalwart Nand Kumar Patel and brother of Deepak Patel, both killed in the Darbha attack by Maoists in 2013.
As he goes from person to person, Choudhary bends several times to touch feet of the elderly and has his hands completely folded.
The journey from officer to politician has been a quick turnaround, but is not something he is uncomfortable with. “I wanted to work for my people. I have based my campaign on a vision for a new Kharsia where all sectors will be developed. The people believe I will be able to work for them, and this is why I joined politics,” Choudhary said.
But if his home village is painted in shades of saffron, less than a kilometre-and-a-half away is the village of Nandeli, home to Nand Kumar Patel, and festooned with the colours of the Congress. Here, there is grudging acknowledgement of the challenge Choudhary has presented, but conviction that Umesh Patel, a youth leader and president of the Youth Congress, will pull through. As he goes door to door, Patel reminds people of the development he has brought. But the core appeal to the voter is emotional. Ram Pukar from Nandeli said, “Umesh and his mother have both come. Mataji said her husband had given his life, and it was up to us to take care of her son. We will not betray Nand Kumar Patel. Umesh will win.”
In the town of Kharsia, reflecting how tight this contest has become, opinion seems split right down the middle. At a roadside dhaba, a group of young men, aged between 20 and 25, sing Choudhary’s praises. They talk of his reputation as an IAS officer, and the development he could bring to Kharsia. The group is challenged by the dhaba owner. “He may develop if he wins. But he is like any other politician. Look at the alcohol that is being distributed in every village. And have you heard that video and how arrogant he is?,” Kailash Singh said. The video he is referring to is a speech Choudhary gave in the constituency where he told voters that he would become a powerful person when the BJP wins, and that if people did not “support him in the right things, he would break on them like a wave”.
Among the issues being discussed is the question of timing. A resident of Kharsia town said, “He (Choudhary) should have declared his candidature later. When people first heard he was campaigning, they were very excited. But the time gave the Patel family time to regroup and send out their political message. Now while many may still vote for OP bhaiya, many don’t want to be disloyal to the memory of Nand Kumar Patel. We are even thinking that because OP is so young, it doesn’t matter if we don’t vote for him this time. He has so much time to be MP or MLA in the future.”
Choudhary, however, said Congress won by a massive margin last time because of sympathy, which has run out, and that the ability to work will count. But even as Kharsia debates, there is one consensus. From a seat that was a given for Congress, this is now a fierce contest.