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Mainstream, VOL 61 No 45 November 4, 2023

Chhattisgarh: The Ghosts of Bastar will Decide | Papri Sri Raman

Saturday 4 November 2023, by Papri Sri Raman


CHHATTISGARH, ALONG WITH Mizoram, goes to the husting on November 7 to vote in a new State government. Even at this late hour, Arvind Kejriwal’s Aam Aadmi Party has announced it will context the assembly polls in Mizoram. Ambitious after its Punjab victory, AAP believes that as Mizoram has the least number of seats among all the five States going to polls this November, it will be able to enter Mizoram easily. However, Mizoram is at the moment a politically ambivalent Christian State, not really looking for an alternative to the Congress or the BJP. AAP’s Mizoram contest will only split the anti-BJP vote; its wins are likely to come from the Congress and smaller party voters. It is not likely to make a dent in Zoramthanga’s Mizo National Front.

AAP has announced it will contest 33 seats in Chhattisgarh, led by Komal Hupendi. Perhaps, AAP would have done better to contest a few more seats in Chhattisgarh’s Bastar district, really looking for a third party that will offer the district peace and prosperity. AAP’s Hupendi will contest from the Bhanupratappur seat. In Dantewada AAP has fielded Baloo Ram Bhawani and it is here that AAP has a chance to make an impact.

State elections will be held in two phases in Chhattisgarh, as the Union Government has euphemistically labelled it a Left-Wing Extremist (LWE)-dominated State. It is neighbour to another LWE State, Telengana, also going to the polls later in November. Voting in twenty seats in seven Naxalite-affected districts in Bastar division and four other districts, will take place in the first phase of voting. These 12 constituencies are – Antagarh (ST), Bhanupratappur (ST), Kanker (ST), Kondagaon (ST), Narayanpur (ST), Bastar (ST), Jagdalpur, Keshkal (ST), Chitrakot (ST), Dantewada (ST), Bijapur (ST), Konta (ST), Dongargarh (SC), Dongargaon, Khujji, Kawardha, and Pandariya seats, falling in Bastar division and eight constituencies in Mohla-Manpur-Ambagarh Chowki, Rajnandgaon, Khairgarh-Chhuikhadan-Gandai and Kabirdham. Here over four million voters will vote for as many as 223 candidates.

The second phase will see election to 70 other seats on 17 November. It is in these 70 seats that AAP will snatch away Congress seats, which only helps the Bharatiya Janata Party because so close to national elections, the BJP has just one enemy, the Congress Party. Kejriwal’s case here is like the enemy of an enemy is a friend. Also, elections in two phases will let all parties and voters assess the trends in the 20 phase I seats minded by high security; the exit polls will have their stories to tell in the way Bastar votes. As a result, parties will be able to change and reconfigure their strategies and can manipulate the sentiments of voters in the phase II polls.

Chhattisgarh is a resource-rich State in the central part of the subcontinent, with forty per cent of forest cover. Surrounded by seven other States, this Gondwana landmass was once upon a time divided into thirty-six feudal units and is said to be the ancient land of south Kosala, the kingdom from where Rama’s mother Kausalya came. This is home to forty-two tribes. It is rich in coal, iron ore and other minerals and supports thirty million people, of which as much as 34 per cent comprise tribals, says the tribal map of the State; despite its resources, poverty and unemployment is acute here.
The State was a part of Madhya Pradesh since 1956, though the people here have been asking for a separate identity since 1920s. A political grouping called the Chhattisgarh Rajya Nirman Manch stepped up the call for a separate State in the 1990s and a decade later the new State of Chhattisgarh was recognised. It has 90 seats in the assembly, 46 is the magic number that gives a party the right to rule.

The 2018 assembly elections brought the Congress party to power here. It won 68 seats, with the BJP winning 15 seats. Former Congressman Ajit Jogi’s party, the Janata Congress Chhattisgarh (JCC) and Mayavati’s Bahujan Samaj Party shared the other seven seats, with the Communist Party of India. Over 76 per cent voting was reported. The voting is likely to be similar in the 2023 elections; it hasn’t changed much for the last ten years. One can see from the 2018 results map that the voter here is very sure what and who s/he wants. For the ruling Congress, retaining power here will be the challenge and how Bastar votes will decide Congress’s fate.

We have seen in umpteen films and reports, how difficult it has been for residents here to vote. The Naxals in Bastar and the adjacent areas have given boycott calls for elections here since the 1990s. Officials of the Election Commission of India now say that they have set up new polling stations in 120 interior villages in the Bastar division so that people in this region get a chance to vote in their own settlements, for the first time since independence. ‘These new polling stations (126) will be narrating the story about the triumph of ballot over bullet’, they assert. Of these, 15 are in Kanker assembly constituency, 12 in Antagarh, five in Bhanupratappur (Kanker district), 20 in Konta (Sukma district), 14 in Chitrakot, four in Jagdalpur, one in Bastar (Bastar district), 13 in Kondagaon, 19 in Keshkal (Kondagaon district), nine in Narayanpur, eight in Dantewada and six in Bijapur. As a result of this initiative, voting here is expected to be safe and more secure. The ECI has also set up an app, the cVIGIL app, to report electoral malpractice, it has said.

However, local people have reminded analysts that Baster’s past will cast its shadow over the 2023 elections. No one here has forgotten that Salwa Judum was formed in 2005 as a state-sponsored vigilante movement (by the then Raman Singh-led State government against the Naxals and that Salwa Judum later received bipartisan support from both the ruling and opposition parties. In 2011, the Supreme Court of India declared this force ‘illegal’.

In 2008, Chhattisgarh, along with neighbouring Jharkhand, accounted for over 65 percent of total Naxal violence in the country, despite all the government actions against all Left movements.

In 2013, in Bastar, 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 as the State party president. In 2018, he became the chief minister and the Congress party has ruled the State for five years. Tribal leader Kawasi Lakhma, who survived the attack, is now a State minister.

The Congress: The party has decided to contest all the 90 seats in Chhattisgarh assembly and poll polltellers have given the party 60 seats + or minus. Bastar is crucial for the Congress, the party has all 12 seats in this division now but if it cannot retain all of these seats, the party’s future will become unstable., Congress spokesperson, Sushil Anand Shukla is confident that they will retain all the 12 seats. ‘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’, he told the media recently.

Among the prominent candidates in the first phase of the Assembly elections are State Congress chief and Member of Parliament Deepak Baij (Chitrakot), ministers Kawasi Lakhma (Konta), Mohan Markam (Kondagaon) and Mohammad Akbar (Kawardha), and Chhavindra Karma (Dantewada). The Congress has fielded its senior OBC leader and chairman of Chhattisgarh Mineral Development Corporation, Girish Dewangan, against BJP’s Raman Singh from Rajnandgaon.

Baghel has selected two dozen new and younger aspirants and dropped 18 sitting MLAs from his candidate list; this, analysts say, will impact Congress’s fortune. Deepak Baij has fielded himself as an MLA candidate but the first time MLA he removed, Rajman Benjam, may spoil his chances. Congress MLA Anup Nag, who was denied a ticket by the party, is contesting as an Independent from the Antagarh seat.

Congress leaders in Bastar are not very optimistic that Congress will win in Bastar. They say, the Congress campaign in the rest of the State have no meaning in the constituencies in the first phase polling. ‘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’, a media report quotes one Congress leader to say. ‘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’, this Congressman is said to have warned.

Ahead of the elections, two Congress legislators are switching to other parties after being denied tickets for their seats in Surguja region. Vijay Jaiswal, who represents the Manendragarh constituency, has announced his intention to join the Gondwana Gantantra Party (GGP), which is in alliance with the Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP). The other Congress politician, Chintamani Maharaj, a two-time MLA from Samri (ST) constituency, is likely to return to the BJP after more than 11 years. Mood surveys predict a Congress win with lesser seats in Chhattisgarh and post-poll alliances.
BJP: Even in a State election, the BJP banks on hope and its prime minister’s rhetoric. The party has decided to contest 85 seats. In the first phase, the BJP candidates include former chief minister Raman Singh (Rajnandgaon) and four former State ministers, Kedar Kashyap (Narayanpur), Lata Usendi (Kondagaon), Vikram Usendi (Antagarh) Mahesh Gagda (Bijapur), and former IAS officer Neelkanth Tekam (Keshkal).

The BJP has been trying hard to make inroads in the tribal belt to challenge Congress’s dominance in Bastar. Narayan Chandel is their strategist. However, the BJP has not been able to pacify Bastar. 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 here. The BJP had a MLA in Dantewada following the 2018 polls, Bhima Mandavi, who was the only BJP member elected from Bastar. In April 2019, just before the national elections, Mandavi and four of his security guards were killed in an IED blast. In the past two months alone, the BJP has said that three of its leaders have been killed by Maoists, despite stepped-up security.

In Dantewada, voters wanted that Bhima’s wife Ojaswi be given another chance but the party has not given a ticket to Ojaswi. Mahesh Gagda and Kedar Kashyap, both former BJP ministers, are also back in the fray. The Bijapur seat went to BL Pujari instead of Gagda and party workers are unhappy.

Others: The Left Front, comprising the CPI (20) and CPI-M(5) will contest 25 seats. The BSP will contest 53 seats in alliance with the Gondwana Ganatantrik Party (37seats).

The Hamar Raj Party, a political grouping of the Chhattisgarh Sarva Adivasi Samaj, which wields considerable influence in Bastar, will fight elections in 55 seats across the State, five seats in Bastar. Sarv Adivasi Samaj president Arvind Netam, a former Union minister in the Indira Gandhi government, said that his supporters were forced to jump into the electoral fray as the ‘demands of the tribal community was not met by either the Congress or the BJP’. Netam has added, ‘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’.

The national spokesperson for the SAS, B S Rawate, has said, ‘We believe we will win in Bastar. 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 has said.

In Bastar, the ghosts of the past are all awake and walking and neither can the BJP nor the Congress (INC) remain complacent; both need to start thinking of alliances that will help set up a new State government in Chhattisgarh and value-add to governance ahead of the upcoming general elections.

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