Ram Naik in election battle with top Indian film star

Vol 8, PW 2 (21 Apr 04) People & Policy

India goes to the polls in national elections between 20th April and 10th May and next Monday, on 26th April, voters in the Mumbai North parliamentary constituency of oil minister Ram Naik will either re-elect or defeat him.

This will be Naiks sixth parliamentary election from Mumbai North, a constituency he has held undefeated since 1989. In the last national election in 1998, Naik, 71, defeated his nearest rival by a massive margin of 350,000 votes and was made junior railway minister.

The next year he was made oil minister a position he holds till now and which he uses to full effect at the taxpayers expense. Thanks to Naik, state-owned oil companies have realised they have a social obligation to lay water pipelines, supply electricity to a fort and carry out other social work in their masters constituency.

When the ruling BJP re-nominated Naik as its candidate, no one doubted he would win, given his formidable reputation as MP and minister. But Naik now faces a tough fight: the opposition Congress party has nominated the popular Hindi film star Govind Arun Ahuja, better known by his screen name Govinda, to run against him.

Govinda is the antithesis of Naik. Young, dynamic and a rags-to-riches fairy tale, Govinda lives in Mumbais posh Juhu suburb and is making his maiden entry into politics.

In India, film stars and cricketers have far wider mass appeal than the likes of even reasonably successful politicians such as Naik. Initially, Naik made light of Govindas candidature by saying the film star would fail miserably.

But later in the campaign, Naik suffered another setback when he lost a crucial supporter: Hitendra Thakur, Maharashtra state independent legislator and alleged north Mumbai mafia boss, who switched sides to join Govinda. Until now, Thakur has been a major contributor to all of Naiks previous election victories as MP.

But today, Thakur is campaigning for Govinda, his childhood buddy. On the campaign trail Govinda is pulling in the crowds.

Naik, meanwhile, is sweating it out in the sweltering April heat of Mumbai.