A film star takes on a veteran

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Sib Kumar Das

The Biju Janata Dal (BJD) has roped in a well-known film star to win the Berhampur parliamentary constituency, a Congress bastion in south Orissa. The continuing strength of the Congress in this parliamentary constituency persuaded the former Prime Minister, P.V. Narasimha Rao, to contest and win from here in 1996. Berhampur constituency, adjoining Andhra Pradesh, has around 30 per cent Telugu-speaking voters, who played a major role in the former Prime Minister’s choice. These voters are still a big force in the constituency.

Berhampur goes to the polls in the first phase on April 16. This time it will be a tripartite contest. The sitting Congress MP, Chandrasekhar Sahu, who is Minister of State for Rural Development in the Centre, is seeking re-election here. He also happens to be one of the three working presidents of the Orissa Pradesh Congress Committee (OPCC).

The BJD is serious about winning the Berhampur seat. It is part of Ganjam district, the home district of the BJD chief, Naveen Patnaik. The BJD has taken a gamble by fielding Siddhant Mohapatra, a famous Oriya film star against the veteran Mr. Sahu. It wants to counter Mr. Sahu using the glamour of Mr. Mohapatra.

After snapping ties with the BJD, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) has fielded tribal leader Bharat Paika as its candidate. Mr Paika is the sitting MLA of Ramgiri, an Assembly segment of this parliamentary constituency that has been abolished after delimitation. But the contest will be mainly between the Congress and the BJD.

In 1999, when the alliance between the BJD and the BJP was intact, the BJP candidate Anadi Sahu was able to win from this Congress bastion. But the BJP could not repeat the feat in 2004. Apart from Mr. Anadi Sahu, only two other non-Congress candidates have won from here: Bijay Chandra Das of the CPI in 1951 and Independent candidate Uma Charan Patnaik in 1957.

However, this time there appears to be an anti-Congress wave in all the constituency’s seven Assembly segments. After delimitation, the Assembly segments of this Lok Sabha constituency are Berhampur, Digaphandi, Chikiti, Chatrapur, Gopalpur of Ganjam district, and Paralakhemundi, Mohana of Gajapati district.

Suryanarayan Patro, a powerful BJD Cabinet Minister, is contesting from Digapahandi; he is also in charge of the campaign strategy of the film star, Mr. Mohapatra. The Left parties are on the side of the BJD. The CPI is contesting from Chatrapur as part of the alliance with the BJD; it had won from here in 2004. The CPI(M) which has refrained from fielding a candidate from Digaphandi, where it has strong support, will also support the BJD.

According to senior BJD leaders, they are banking on the appeal of Mr. Mahapatra to consolidate the anti-Congress vote. The party’s strategy became clear when a large number of cinema and TV stars turned up during the filing of nomination by Mr. Mohapatra.

The Congress’ Mr. Sahu, however, maintains he is confident. Though people may come out to get a glimpse of film stars, they will vote for a mature politician to keep alive the legacy of the Congress in this constituency, he says.

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