Will Sartaj get the taj

Will Sartaj get the taj

Guru-Shishya from rival camps in decent fight in otherwise polarised poll battle

In the hard-boiled caste politics in Hindi belt, a candidate has defied conventional political logic by winning successive elections to Lok Sabha and Assembly for decades.

And it is this strength of octogenarian BJP rebel Sartaj Singh, which has put the BJP in a tight spot in Hoshangabad Assembly seat, where the Speaker of Madhya Pradesh Assembly Sitarsharan Sharma is seeking re-election.

The fight between the two veterans— Singh (78) and Sharma (67)— will also put to test the strength of the caste neutral constituency of the former, who has represented Hoshangabad as MP for many times and adjoining Seoni-Malwa Assembly segment twice as MLA.

Called ‘Babuji’, Singh is a Sikh, which has miniscule presence in Hoshangabad but he created a folk lore image for him by repeatedly defeating leaders with strong caste backgrounds.

In 1998, he had defeated Congress stalwart late Arjun Singh in the Lok Sabha election, a feat which not many in BJP had believed he could accomplish.

Sartaj also served as a Union minister in the 13-day-long first NDA government at Centre headed by the late Atal Bihari Vajpayee.

In a twist of irony, Singh after his nearly five decade association with the BJP parted ways from the saffron party and chose to join hands with the Congress, which has fielded him from Hoshangabad being represented by Sharma.

In the past, Sharma was mentored by the erstwhile BJP veteran.

In fact most of the BJP leaders in Hoshangabad were mentoed by the towering Singh and it is no wonder that many are backing the candidature of “Sardar Sahab” from the backdoor even when he has left the BJP.

Speaking to DH, Singh said, “I am stronger than before. I have the strength of the Congress with me now and old workers of BJP are also backing me. Is it not double power? Many BJP workers are supporting me without coming out in open by the word of mouth campaign telling their relatives and acquaintances to vote for me. I am sent percent sure of my victory.”

He is also unfazed by the caste dynamics not favouring him in this BJP bastion, where Kurmis and Brahmins constitute a large chunk of electorates. Sharma is a Brahmin.

Raja Ram Chowdhury, a software professional from Nimsaadia village of Hoshangbad, who belongs to the Kurmi community rues that no party has fielded a candidate from this community, which has the largest vote chunk.

“Recently a Kurmi Samaj Sammelan was also organised in Hoshangabad, where it was demanded that a member from the community must be fielded. Had Sartaj not joined the Congress, there was a possibility of the party fielding a Kurmi candidate this time.”

He says the seat would have been a cakewalk for the BJP had Sartaj not been fielded from the rival camp. “It should not be a surprise if the BJP loses this seat,” he says.

However, Sharma’s supporters are confident that the BJP’s cadre votes and Sharma’s community votes besides Shivraj Singh Chouhan’s image will ensure that he sails through.

Sharma’s is a political family with huge social networks. His two brothers were also MLAs in past while one retired as a chief secretary.

Playing the victim card to soften anger of BJP cadres if any Sartaj says, “What was the option before me. I rebelled only after injustice was done to me. Suffering injustice is a bigger crime. And I do not believe in all this caste talk.”

He is also dismissive of the caste debate.

“Not one or twice, I have won seven times from Hoshangabad. People are not bothered about caste. They want somebody, who can work for them. This is the thing I want to refute that it is caste that wins you polls,” Singh argues

While Singh indeed has the good will, it could be a daunting task for him to beat Sharme whose victory margin in the last election was over 49,000 votes.

The BJP has won this seat successively in the last three elections since 2003. It has also won the seat in 1990 and 1980 in past, while the Congress won from here in 1985, 1993 and 1998.

The relationship between Sartaj Singh and Sitasharan Sharma has been sort of a “guru-shishya" and so far there is no bitterness in the campaign against each other.

Under the tutelage of Singh, Sharma had quit his medical profession and joined full time politics in the eighties.

The cordiality of relationship was at play even when Sharma and Singh came face to face while filing nominations and the latter was quick to touch his feet to seek blessings.

Singh, who was the PWD minister in Shivraj Singh Chouhan government was dropped from the Cabinet in June 2016 along with state Home minister and former chief minister Babulal Gaur in June 2016.

Both Singh and Gaur were denied ticket this time but the party fielded Gaur’s daughter in-law from Govindpur to avoid a rebellion.

In Hoshangabad, it remains to be seen who gets the taj (crown).