New Delhi: It was no more than a chance encounter with first-time BJP candidate Om Birla on an early winter morning in Kota. Sharing the traditional Sindhi breakfast — Dal Pakwan — on an oil-stained newspaper piece, Birla looked crestfallen. Hardly the body language one would expect of a budding political leader just days before Rajasthan was to go to polls to elect a new assembly in 2003.
A caller from BJP headquarters in Delhi had just informed him that he would be the party candidate for the prestigious Kota assembly seat in the forthcoming elections. This meant that state BJP stalwart Lalit Kishore Chaturvedi had decided to move to a safer territory, leaving Birla to slug it out against incumbent MLA and a minister in the then Ashok Gehlot government, Shanti Lal Dhariwal.
Dhariwal, whose campaign machinery was working overtime on the ground, looked confident of reclaiming the seat as he openly challenged anyone and everyone in the state BJP to contest against him.
Wishing Birla success on his electoral debut, this reporter left for other districts of the Haroti region — Baran, Bundi, Jhalawar and Kota — named after the Hara dynasty, which once ruled south-eastern Rajasthan.
On return a week later, Birla seemed to be still finding his feet in his campaign against Dhariwal; the fellow politician in a seat which was the cradle of Jan Sangh politics in Rajasthan. LK Advani started his political career from Kota in the early fifties as an election agent of the then party candidate in the first Lok Sabha polls.
As the campaign picked steam, undecided voters appeared to tilt towards Birla; vouching for his clean image. But others were far from convinced. “I might just vote for him, but then Dhariwal I think would make it in the end,” was the common refrain.
It was a refrain which has so often been the harbinger of some of the biggest electoral debacles in Indian politics.
Rewind to the Kashmir valley in the autumn of 2002.
National Conference’s Omar Abdullah looked confident of succeeding his father and grandfather to the CM’s chair when one Qazi Mohammad Fazal from the newly formed Mufti Mohammad Sayeed’s People's Democratic Party (PDP) — defeated the scion of the Abdullah family from Ganderbal. Even in that election, the common refrain in the electorate was: ‘Omar can’t lose from the family bastion’.
A journalist covering Kashmir elections in Ganderbal reminisced his father’s words while filing a copy for his publication. The father, also a scribe, had covered the Rae Bareli polls in 1977. As in Ganderbal, his father would tell him of people talking of voting against Indira Gandhi. As an afterthought, everyone would however add that the then Prime Minister would win her seat despite facing a tough challenge from Raj Narain of Janata Party.
Indira Gandhi lost from Rae Bareli in 1977. So did Omar Abdullah in 2002. And so did Shanti Dhariwal from Kota in December 2003.
Om Birla defeated Dhariwal by a slender margin to enter the Rajasthan Assembly for the first time. He won the 2014 Lok Sabha polls from Kota and was re-elected in 2019. Birla is now set for a new role, that of the Lok Sabha Speaker.