Madhya Pradesh: Vyapam whistleblower giving state's richest MLA a tough time
The Congress candidate is campaigning on motorcycles while the MLA has a convoy of expensive cars
At 8.45 pm, a bike appears in Ratlam's busy Malviya Nagar Market area carrying Paras Saklecha, Congress candidate from the Ratlam assembly constituency, on the backseat. He is about to address a gathering of over 2,000 people after a day-long jansampark abhiyan (public outreach).
As he alights from the bike and moves toward the stage, a group of people begin jostling to shake hands, and the scattered crowd fills the empty chairs. When he takes the mike at around 9.30 pm, even as Australian cricketer Glenn Maxwell's innings against Afghanistan (in a World Cup match on 7 November) keeps viewers glued to their mobile screens, the crowd is still attentive, hearing him out in pin-drop silence.
Saklecha is has been popular since he became the mayor of Ratlam as well as an independent MLA in 2008, trouncing the BJP's Himmat Kothari, former home minister of Madhya Pradesh. Thanks to his role in exposing the Vyapam scam and the 2017 Mandsaur police firing, he has garnered respect from the masses and several people from remote areas come to listen to him.
He is contesting against Madhya Pradesh's richest MLA, BJP candidate Chetan Kashyap, a businessman with a declared income of Rs 296 crore, for whom PM Narendra Modi held a rally on 4 November in Ratlam.
In his speech, Saklecha takes on his opponent over unfulfilled promises, the lies about unemployment data, underdevelopment of the city, bad roads, and other issues, with a healthy dose of wit and humour.
On the BJP candidate's unfulfilled promise of supplying tap water a decade ago, Saklecha recites Rahat Indori's well-known lines, "Jhooth se sach se jisse bhi yaari rakhen, aap to apni taqreer jaari rakhen/ Baat mann ki kahein ya watan ki kahein, jhooth bolein to aawaaz bhari rakhen." (Rough translation: whether you're friends with the truth or lies, make sure to keep speaking/ Whether you speak of your mind or the nation, when you lie, make sure your voice is loud). The audience claps appreciatively.
Saklecha continues, "A billboard was put up on the highway saying that the BJP government brought in an investment of over Rs 75,000 crore and gave employment to 1.72 lakh people. It was taken down only after I exposed it. He wanted to keep the voters in the dark with lies."
Taking on chief minister Shivraj Singh Chouhan over the much-hyped Ladli Behna Yojana, Saklecha says, "When chief minister Chouhan noticed that he might be kicked out in this election after failing the state for 15 years, he came up with the Ladli Behna scheme, promising Rs 1,500 to every woman, but later reduced it to Rs 1,000. He then raised the amount to Rs 1,250 and promises to increase it to Rs 3,000. When he is not going to become chief minister again for sure, how will he increase it to Rs 3,000?"
He reiterates the Congress promise of reviving the old pension scheme, filling vacant government posts, a monthly stipend of Rs 500 to 1,500 for school students, subsidised LPG, and others. "Our government will give Rs 60,000 to the women and children of a family every year," he said.
Saklecha, who runs a free coaching centre for youths preparing for competitive examinations, also gives a 10-point agenda for the development of the city apart from the Congress manifesto.
Developing Ratlam into an educational hub, multi-layer parking in the old city, proper repair of roads, developing a gold fair and workshop to promote the gold business for which Ratlam is known, all feature in his agenda.
Taking on the BJP leader's promise to make Ratlam a metro city, he quips, "The BJP leader promises to make Ratlam a metro city. But to become a metro, the population of a city should be 1 crore. The population of our city is over 3 lakh according to the 2011 census. The BJP leader should explain, how will he do it? Kahan se laayenge 97 lakh log? Batao, aap logon ko bahut mehnat karni padegi! (where will he find 97 lakh people? You all will have to work really hard)," making the audience burst into laughter.
He also challenges the BJP candidate to an open debate. The rally, however, ends abruptly as the clock strikes 10.00 pm, the Election Commission of India's stipulated time to end any poll campaign.
"He spoke to the point. The development of the city is overdue. The roads and water system need to be fixed," audience member Prakash Jain tells his friend Rais Khan as the crowd disperses. "The Rs 200 crore scheme to build a drainage pipeline is stuck in corruption."
Not just the voters, Saklecha is also popular among the Opposition camp, but some say his image received a major dent when his assembly membership was disqualified by a high court ruling in 2013.
Requesting anonymity, a BJP leader said, "The only thing which goes against him is that he has switched many parties over the years, and the high court's decision really dented his image."
When Saklecha became an MLA in 2008, defeating Kothari by 31,000 votes, Kothari had filed a petition with the Indore bench of the Madhya Pradesh High Court under section 100 (1) of Representation of the People Act 1951, accusing Saklecha of using corrupt practices in the polls.
Declaring his candidature as "null and void" in April 2013, the court set aside his election, holding him guilty of corrupt practices, just six months before the completion of his five-year term in the assembly. Saklecha, though, got relief in June 2013 when the Supreme Court restored his assembly membership.
Girija Shanker Upadhyay, another audience member points out, "It's a tough fight unlike previous elections. Saklecha was the last person who succeeded in defeating the BJP in 30 years. This time, it's a fight between Laxmi ji (money) and Saraswati ji (education). Let's see who wins."
Despite repeated attempts, Kashyap was unreachable. But he won the last two elections in 2013 and 2018 by a margin of over 40,000 votes, and is eyeing a big victory for the third time.
With over 2.13 lakh voters dominated by Hindu upper caste, Muslim and Jain voters, Ratlam is going to the polls on 17 November, with results to be declared on 3 December.