Chhattisgarh polls: A tight electoral contest plays out on the field of many a bloodbath in Bastar
Violence and tragedy have been central to politics in India's Bastar region, which is preparing for an assembly election.
Bastar The single-lane tarred road is quiet and lonely, meandering through green foliage, slanting upwards, and then gently downhill. It is 5pm, and the forests summon the autumn chill faster, the darkness sets in quicker. In that fading light, there is a hint, but only just, of tragedy.
On the side of the road 4km from Dantewada’s Shyamgiri village, embedded into the wild grass, about a foot away from each other, are two objects that have made this spot their home for the past four-and-a-half years. The first, its exterior caked in mud, is the unmistakeable red shard of a shattered tail light. The second, peeking out from the tall grass, is an orange Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) flag.
It was exactly here, 25km away from the district headquarters that at 4.50pm on April 9, 2019, 10 minutes before the end of campaigning for the Lok Sabha polls, that an IED explosion surgically targeted a passing vehicle. Five people inside were killed; BJP’s Dantewada MLA Bhima Mandavi, and four of his security guards. More than four years later, on Monday evening, as he watched people rummaging in the foliage for signs of that blast, Bhima Podiyam stopped his bicycle on his way home to Shyamgiri. “You will find nothing, saheb. This always happens in Bastar during the elections. There is violence, and then everyone forgets.”
History of violenceIn several ways, violence in the 12 seats of the Bastar division, home to India’s worst Maoist conflict, has been a central motif to Chhattisgarh politics as the state heads to another assembly election.
In 2013, in one of India’s deadliest attacks, an ambush on a Congress “parivartan yatra” left 27 people dead, wiping out almost the entire state leadership of the party. Among the dead were heavyweights such as Nand Kumar Patel, former Union minister Vidya Charan Shukla, and the then leader of Opposition, tribal leader Mahendra Karma. Unable to recover in time, the Congress lost the 2013 elections, but appointed Bhupesh Baghel the state party president, and saw him rise as chief minister five years later. Tribal leader Kawasi Lakhma, who survived the attack, is now a state minister. Six years later, Bhima Mandavi was the only BJP MLA who won in Bastar’s 12 seats, but was killed four months later. In the bypoll necessitated by his death, the BJP lost and the Congress now holds all 12 seats. Even in November 2018, five people were killed in an IED blast in Dantewada’s Bacheli, one day before Prime Minister Narendra Modi was to speak in Bastar. Over the past two months alone, the BJP has said that three of its leaders, across three different districts of Bastar, have been killed by Maoists.
But in a small hut in the village of Jangla in Bijapur district, 3km off the main road, and covered in printed party material, one BJP worker says an end to violence is rarely part of any party’s door-to-door campaign. “It is something neither party can promise. If there are fake encounters, people get angry. But if there are IEDs, people just treat those as everyday occurrences. What really matters is the local work of the candidate; of whether he has stayed accessible; whether he can get work done; how much money he takes; and how things like roads have been built. In the completely interior parts, it is who the leaders inside (Maoists) tell them to vote for. This time, with the amount of corruption the Congress has done, how only a few people have benefited, the people are responding to us. We may be tribals, but we are perceptive. Last time, it was Bastar that helped the Congress. This time, the BJP will win at least half the seats in Bastar, and that will help us form government,” this person argued.
Poll barometerThe perceptiveness the Jangla BJP leader refers to is that in all four of Chhattisgarh assembly elections since its inception in 2000, Bastar has voted decisively, and three of four times, read the wind correctly. In 2003 and 2008, despite the Congress boasting an old camaraderie with the tribals from when Madhya Pradesh was undivided, the BJP swept the region winning 9 and 11 seats respectively on their way to government formation. In 2018, when the Congress swept to power, Bastar voted resoundingly for the party, giving it 11 of 12 seats. Only in 2013, did the Congress win 8 seats, and fail to make government.
This time, one senior Congress leader based in Sukma said that a Congress sweep seemed unlikely, in part because the campaign issues that the party is pushing everywhere else in the state have no resonance here.
“In fact, it is a little counterproductive for us. In the plains, you play the regional card, say you are Chhattisgarhiya, but here where very few speak Hindi, that means nothing. We have played OBC politics, but the BJP is telling people that tribals have been ignored. Go off the main road and away from the district headquarters, and people know their local MLAs, but may not even be able to name Baghel or Raman Singh. This is going to be a candidate to candidate fight, and we will lose some seats. There is no wave for either party,” one Congress leader said.
With that in mind, party strategists from both the Congress and the BJP say that they have fielded their most influential candidates possible, even if some either lost before or are members of Parliament.
Deepak Baij, the state Congress president and the MP from Bastar, for instance, is fighting from Chitrakote. Mahesh Gagda and Kedar Kashyap, both former BJP ministers, are also back in the fray. “This is neither the time nor the atmosphere for experimentation or trying completely inexperienced hands. Both parties need experience, because there are other players too. Manish Kunjam of the CPI is always a threat in Sukma, and the Sarva Adivasi Samaj could play spoiler in some seats,” a Congress leader said.
The danger this strategy poses, for both the Congress and the BJP, is that there are murmurs of dissent within both units from those that have been waiting in the wings. “In the BJP, the Bijapur seat went to BL Pujari instead of Gagda and party workers are unhappy. In Dantewada, lots were in favour of Bhima’s wife Ojaswi being given another chance. But there are problems in the Congress, too. Deepak Baij may have fielded himself as Congress president, but the first time MLA he removed, Rajman Benjam, may spoil his chances,” one BJP leader said.
In September, the Sarv Adivasi Samaj, a powerful body of tribals which has a presence across the state, announced the formation of a “political platform” called “Hamar Raj (our rule) that will fight elections in 55 seats across the state. Sarv Adivasi Samaj president Arvind Netam, a former Union minister in the Indira Gandhi government, said that the body was forced to take the plunge after the demands of the tribal community was not met by either the Congress or the BJP. “Most worryingly, the government has weakened provisions of the Panchayat(Extension to the Scheduled Areas). Our fight is not just political but is for our identity, for the Constitution and PESA,” Netam said.
BS Rawate, national spokesperson for the Sarv Adivasi Samaj says they are focusing on five seats in Bastar. “We believe we will win. Our aim is to initiate peace in Bastar. Both the BJP and the Congress have committed atrocities on tribal people, and they are angry. People who were displaced during Salwa Judum still haven’t been rehabilitated, and we will raise this in our campaign,” he said.
Former BJP minister and party spokesperson Ajay Chandrakar says his party will return to power in the region. “Here, the people are fed-up of Congress misrule. Congress has done nothing concrete. We have started industrialisation, and the conversion of tribals is a big issue as well. The Congress has played with the sentiments of people.”
Sushil Anand Shukla, Congress spokesperson, however, says that barring a few stray incidents, violence has by and large come down. “On top of that, our government procures 67 different kinds of forest produce at an MSP, a list which was seven during the BJP’s tenure. We have worked extensively in the fields of education, infrastructure and employment and are confident we will retain all 12 seats,” he said.
Beneath the uneasy calmWith less than three weeks to go for November 7, when Bastar will vote, in one office in Jagdalpur, the headquarters of Bastar district and its largest city, complete with shopping malls and busy crossings, and the only seat in Bastar that is not reserved for Scheduled Tribes, there are policemen scurrying around to ensure that the cycle of election violence is broken.
Sundar Raj, inspector general of police (Bastar Range), who has been in the area for six years, is hopeful. “Our area of dominance has gone up, as we have opened 65 camps in the past five years. In that sense, it takes away their areas of sole geographical influence. Out of these 65 camps, there are several that in the past, you would require a full fledged operation to enter. Now we sit there all day and night. Confrontation may have come down slightly but we are still entering the forests, but they are choosing not to engage perhaps because of their diminishing strength. But of course, we still have to be careful. They have the ability to strike, and we have our security protocol in place,” Raj said.
Back in the village of Shyamgiri, 4km from the site of the IED blast that killed Mandavi, night has set in, and in a small clearing, a group of five tribal boys are cooking dinner, rice and chicken, in an open chulha. One boy laughs and says, “It is funny that the Congress has given the Danteada ticket to Chhavindra Karma, Mahendra Karma’s son, and the BJP has replaced Ojaswi Mandavi, who lost her husband. The BJP’s empathy lasts only for five years, but the Congress sensitivity lasts for a decade, whether they work or not.”
As the rest titter around him, one other, the eldest in the group, suddenly lapses into a quiet seriousness, reiterating the ground rules they have all been brought up with. “For the next three weeks, if you see a government car, or a police bus, stop and let it pass. Do not stay in its vicinity. Elections are always dangerous.”
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