Chhindwara (Madhya Pradesh): Madhya Pradesh Congress president Kamal Nath, whose tenure as chief minister ended abruptly in March 2020, is making a renewed attempt to bring his party to power in the state, but is facing a tough challenge from the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) for his own election from home turf of Chhindwara.
The 76-year-old Congress veteran, the sitting MLA from Chhindwara who projects himself as an ardent 'Hanuman bhakt', is pitted against BJP candidate Vivek Bunty Sahu, a 'Shiv bhakt', in the November 17 assembly polls.
Both of them also locked horns in the 2018 assembly polls when Nath trounced Sahu (44) by a margin of 25,837 votes.
Since then, Sahu, renominated from the seat by the ruling party and backed by the well-oiled BJP organisational machinery, is seeking to avenge his defeat.
The BJP candidate is a former Bharatiya Janata Yuva Morcha president for Chhindwara district and is well aware of the star constituency's voter profile and caste combinations.
BJP leaving no stone unturned
The saffron party is leaving no stone unturned to pull the rug from under the feet of Nath who, in all likelihood, is going to be the chief minister if the Congress wins the elections.
Six months ago, the BJP's district unit, with a binocular atop a vehicle, ran a campaign, saying it was searching for Nath who had "vanished" from Chhindwara after winning the last polls.
By its campaign, the BJP tried to drive home the point that the former Union minister was not working in his constituency which voted for him.
Many feel the BJP's move was aimed at tying down Nath in the Chhindwara assembly segment from where the saffron outfit has won just three times as compared to 13 victories notched up by the Congress out of the 16 contests witnessed by the constituency since 1957.
Both the main contestants are openly flaunting their religiosity to woo voters in Chhindwara, which is part of the Lok Sabha constituency of the same name.
The Congress mascot for MP polls, who got a more than 102 feet tall Hanuman idol installed in Chhindwara a couple of years ago, is not missing any chance to portray himself as a strong believer of the 'trouble-shooter' God.
BJP nominee devoted to Lord Shiva
Similarly, BJP nominee Sahu is not lagging behind in showing his devotion to Lord Shiva. He got an 84 feet tall idol of Lord Shiva consecrated in Chhindwara this year. He starts his election campaign by offering puja like Nath.
In the run-up to the polls, the veteran Congress leader hosted Dhirendra Shastri, the 27-year-old head priest of the Bageshwar Dham who has often pitched for declaring India as a 'Hindu Rashtra'.
The former CM had also played host in Chhindwara to another controversial preacher, Pandit Pradeep Mishra, who openly favours establishment of a Hindu Rashtra.
Nath's move has been frowned upon by a section in the Congress.
In August, Nath hit back at the criticism against him for hosting Shastri in his home turf for a three-day religious function, saying there was no need to say "India is a Hindu nation as 82 per cent Indians are Hindus".
Senior BJP leader and former Union minister Ravi Shankar Prasad, addressing a press conference in Chhindwara recently, said, "I see Kamal Nathji's love for Hindu feelings, sometimes as Hanumanji's follower. It is good that some fellowships for worshipping have been held (here)." "But why are you (Nath) not speaking against the disrespect shown to Sanatan Dharma by your friends and ally Tamil Nadu chief minister's son and your party president Mallikarjun Kharge's son?" Prasad asked.
BJP election managers from Delhi and Bhopal are camping in Chhindwara to try and turn the tide in favour of their candidate.
Not only this, teams from Gujarat - the home state of Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Union Home Minister and BJP's chief strategist Amit Shah, were working overtime in Chhindwara with a mission to dethrone Nath from his home constituency.
However, the Congress leader is formidable political force here, having won the Chhindwara Lok Sabha seat a record nine times since 1980.
A member of Ahmedabad deputy mayor Bipin Ramswarup Sikka's team told PTI that they will leave Chhindwara only after the polling concludes on Friday.
"We are working day and night to ensure the BJP demolishes Nath's citadel this time around," Bharatiya Janata Yuva Morcha Gujarat leader Mohit Telwani said on Diwali night.
Flags and posters of the two rival parties dot the streets, lanes and by-lanes. Vehicles with loudspeakers blaring songs and seeking support for Nath and Sahu make their way on the busy thoroughfares of the constituency, manifesting a keen contest in Chhindwara.
Congress seeking votes in Kamal Nath's name
The Congress is seeking votes from people, telling them their support is crucial not only for the bright future of Chhindwara, but also of Madhya Pradesh given that Nath is tipped to be the chief minister if the party wins the polls.
The opposition party is also highlighting development works, infrastructure and industrial growth in Chhindwara under Nath's stewardship.
On the other hand, 'young' Sahu looks determined to give a tough fight to the septuagenarian politician. He is especially focusing on young and women voters, who outnumber men in the constituency.
He visits each and every temple coming on his way while campaigning and seeks blessings of priests amid chants of "Jai Shri Ram".
While campaigning on foot, Sahu, whose team has a good number of female party workers, makes it a point to touch the feet of women elder to him. The assembly constituency has 1,41,002 women voters compared to 1,40,674 male electors.
As Sahu's campaign party moves on, a vehicle accompanying it plays a song praising Chief Minister Shivraj Singh Chouhan's Ladli Behna Yojana, under which women are getting Rs 1,250 monthly financial assistance for the last five months.
The BJP's campaign is also trying to portray Nath as "anti-women" by highlighting that he had made his wife Alka resign in 1997 to contest the Lok Sabha polls from Chhindwara. In that bypoll, Nath had lost to former Chief Minister and BJP stalwart Sunderlal Patwa.
On his campaign trail, Sahu said, "I am 100 per cent confident of winning the election. For 43 years Nath has betrayed the people of Chhindwara. Youths are unemployed. On the other hand, Nath is running a business empire with 22 companies." Congress's former three-time MLA from Chhindwara, Dipak Saxena, is spotted travelling in an open jeep drumming up support for Nath. A man dressed as Mahatma Gandhi leads his campaign amid deafening sound of drums.
"Look how people are responding to our campaign. This proves Nathji is going to win the elections with a record margin," he told PTI.
Nakul Nath, the local Lok Sabha MP and the son of Kamal Nath who is the campaign manager of the party in Chhindwara, said his father is getting tremendous support from people and will record a historic win.
At his residence in Shikarpur on the outskirts of Chhindwara, Kamal Nath is seen holding meetings with Congress leaders and workers.
Santosh Bandavar (50), who runs a barber shop on Collectorate Road, said Nath is going to win the elections.
"A majority of people who come to my shop talk of a wave of change in MP. People in Chhindwara want to see Nath as the next chief minister," Bandavar added.
Sanjay Singhai (53), a resident of Parasia Road, feels Sahu has an edge over Nath due to his electioneering pattern that focused on direct contact with voters.
Pushpa Devi (45), a resident of Sanichara Bazaar, was all praise for the state government's Ladli Behna Yojana, saying the money she received under the scheme helped her celebrate Diwali with fanfare.