Wednesday, October 21, 2020

A spoiler in the fray

A spoiler in the fray

EIGHTEEN constituencies in Chhattisgarh, a State of 25 million (2.5 crore) people, went to the polls in the first phase of the Assembly elections on November 12. In the second phase, scheduled for November 20, the remaining 72 seats in the 90-seat Legislative Assembly are at stake. In the fray are the two major political parties, the Congress and the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), and smaller parties and coalitions, including the the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP).

The alliance of the Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) with former Chief Minister Ajit Jogi’s Janta Congress Chhattisgarh and the Communist Party of India, announced shortly before the elections, threw the calculations of the two major parties into some disarray. The BJP and the Congress each predicted that the alliance, which is contesting all the seats, would prove to be a spoiler for their major rival.

Chief Minister Raman Singh was facing an anti-incumbency wave after being in power for 15 of the 18 years that the State has been in existence. The BJP had 49 seats in the outgoing Assembly; the Congress, 38; and the BSP, one. Raman Singh, while having the advantage of being the face of a once-popular government, was challenged by the Congress, which has made inroads into the BJP bases. The contest is expected to be as close as it was in the last election. However, the Congress lacks a formidable local leader, and the alliance of Jogi and Mayawati may divide the anti-BJP votes.

Mayawati has announced that Jogi will be the Chief Minister if the alliance wins. Jogi is contesting from Marwahi constituency in Sarguja district of north Chhattisgarh. His son had won the seat with the highest margin in the State in the previous Assembly elections.

Opinion in the State on the alliance’s prospects was divided. The BSP secured a little more than 4 per cent of the votes in 2013, but Jogi was a popular leader from the Satnami sect, which has a considerable presence around Bilaspur. Satnamis constitute a big group among the Scheduled Castes, which according to the 2011 Census, constitute 12.8 per cent of the State’s population. But whether this will benefit the alliance is uncertain, for the sect’s Guru Baldas and his son joined the Congress ahead of the election.

Twelve of the South Chhattisgarh constituencies where voting was held on November 12 are in Bastar, where Maoists have a substantial presence; the other six are in Rajnandgaon. A total of 190 candidates contested in the eight districts that fall in the zone. Early polling, from 7 a.m. to 3 p.m., took place in 10 seats—Antagarh, Bijapur, Bhanupratappur, Dantewada, Kanker, Keshkal, Kondagaon, Konta, Mohla-Manpur and Narayanpur. Polling took place from 8 a.m. onwards in Bastar, Chitrakot, Dongargarh, Dongargaon, Jagdalpur, Khairagarh, Khujji and Rajnandgaon. The last was Chief Minister Raman Singh’s constituency, where he faced opposition from Karuna Shukla, the niece of former Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee. (She has defected from the BJP to the Congress.) The highest turnout was in Dongargaon (85.15 per cent), while the lowest was from Bijapur (47.35 per cent). Bastar, which saw 40 per cent polling in 2013, recorded a 58 per cent turnout this time.

The top leaders of both the Congress and the BJP campaigned ahead of the Assembly elections, in which the stakes are particularly high in view of the general election due in 2019. Prime Minister Narendra Modi, Uttar Pradesh Chief Minister Yogi Adityanath, BJP president Amit Shah and Congress president Rahul Gandhi have campaigned in Chhattisgarh. But the “Modi wave”, which helped the BJP in the last general election, was not much in evidence; it was Raman Singh who seemed to be the popular face of the BJP in the State.

Boycott call

The voting percentage in the 18 seats that went to the polls on November 12 was 76.28, which was marginally higher than the 75.93 per cent turnout in the 2013 elections. Notwithstanding the administration’s tall claims of a successful election season, however, there were reports of rigging and booth capturing, according to sources on the ground. The high voting percentage did not also apparently mean that the hold of Maoists was loosening in the areas or that the voters had suddenly reposed more faith in the democratic processes.

Indeed, there are reports of people not being able to vote because of the distance between their homes and polling booths. Maoists had called for an election boycott, and this was one of the reasons for people’s reluctance to step out of their villages to vote. In at least four villages of Kanker constituency, 800 registered voters were unable to exercise their franchise as the election booth was shifted 12 kilometres away at the last minute. The people in Amapani village had made arrangements at the booth and waited until midday for Election Commission officials to arrive. But when they were told that the booth had been relocated to Thema village, they decided to boycott the elections. “These people were eager to vote and according to them, there hadn’t been any Maoist attack on the village in the past decade,” said a resident of Kanker on condition of anonymity, rubbishing the administration’s claim that the booth was moved because there was a threat of an imminent Maoist attack. He added that in the interior regions of Bastar, one had to walk several kilometres and sometimes cross streams and Army camps in order to reach a polling booth and wondered whether one could expect people in the cities to travel so much to cast their votes.

Some interior villages are so remote that sometimes people do not know who the candidates are or which party they represent. In an incident near Narayanpur, there were reports of the people of an entire village being picked up by security forces and forced to vote. “The villagers refused to do so and called for a boycott,” said a local journalist on condition of anonymity. There were also attempts to exaggerate reports by some sections of the media, he said. A Hindi daily, in its bid to outdo other media houses, displayed the photograph of a tribal woman with the caption that she was desperately trying to remove the ink from her finger soon after casting her vote out of fear of Maoists. The local reporter said: “It is usual for tribal men and women to sit down after voting as they travel long distances on foot to vote. They also absent-mindedly play with stones lying on the ground. A photographer clicked that picture and in his desperation to outdo the competition, added salt and pepper to the story to make it more saleable.”

In the weeks leading up to the elections, Maoist attacks reportedly claimed the lives of eight security personnel and five civilians. Meanwhile, there were reports of rigging in Narayanpur. A day before the first phase, Congress spokesperson P.L. Punia tweeted: “The BJP in desperation had decided to murder democracy. Senior bureaucrats leak information of massive planned rigging of all remote booths in Bastar through government machinery.” The next day, the advocate Prashant Bhushan tweeted: “Reports from Chhattisgarh suggest that even polling officers have not reached remote polling booths in Bastar as polling starts. BJP seems to be planning to use security forces and district administration to capture booths and cast bogus votes.” Echoing these sentiments, the Dantewada-based journalist Prabhat Singh told Frontline that bogus voting had taken place in Narayanpur. “If proper investigations are done, it will be found that many of the people who seemed to have voted were actually dead or behind bars.” He said that while people seemed to be favourably inclined towards the Congress this time, some officers were trying to prevent a change.

While reporters have always found it difficult to report from conflict zones of left-wing extremism, two distinct stories concerning media personnel made news during the elections in Chhattisgarh. On October 30, Achyutananda Sahu, a cameraman with Doordarshan, along with three officers of the District Reserve Guards, was killed in an ambush by the Maoists, barely 2 km from Nilavaya village in Dantewada. Sahu, along with two other Doordarshan employees, was travelling with the armed forces to the first polling booth set up after several years in Nilavaya. As he got down from the bike to photograph a Maoist pamphlet pasted on a tree, the group came under fire, which killed Sahu. The Maoists later said that they did not intend to target the journalist.

Media’s role

The Aaj Tak anchor Rahul Kanwal, who runs the show Jab We Met, had travelled to Bastar to cover a simulation exercise by the Central Reserve Police Force (CRPF)—a mock drill of an encounter with Maoists. The episode made a mockery of not only journalism but also of the security forces. Kanwal’s stunt was condemned by journalists across the board.

The Maoist boycott of the election process was not unexpected, but the Maoists did not stop anybody from casting their votes, contrary to suggestions in some sections of the media. They only issued warnings, according to a local journalist. In Nilavaya, for instance, where the Doordarshan journalist was killed, people still came out to vote. The inadvertent killing of the journalist, in fact, put pressure on the Maoists to not create major disturbances, according to this reporter. However, an improvised explosive device (IED) was detonated in Dantewada minutes before the election process was to begin, and IEDs were recovered by security forces near polling stations in Bijapur and Sukma. About 1.25 lakh security personnel were deployed across the 18 constituencies.

In the list of powerful candidates were Manish Kunjam of the Communist Party of India (CPI) against the sitting Congress legislator Kawasi Lakma in Konta; Education Minister Kedar Kashyap in Narayanpur; and the AAP’s chief ministerial candidate from Bhanupratappur, Komal Upendi. A strong candidate for the Congress from Dantewada (Scheduled Tribe) reserved constituency was Devti Karma, wife of the slain Salwa Judum leader Mahendra Karma. In the last Assembly elections, she defeated the BJP’s Bhimarav Mandavi by a margin of 5,900 votes. This time, she faced Mandavi and the BSP’s Keshav Netam. Devti had criticised Modi for not doing enough for the region. Meanwhile, Congress leaders rubbish Modi’s accusation that their party was being pro-Maoist, pointing out that the party lost Union Minister Vidya Charan Shukla and party State president Nandkumar Patel in the May 2013 Maoist attack in Bastar’s Darbha valley in which Mahendra Karma was killed. The strike effectively wiped out the entire top leadership of the Congress in the State.

After the departure of the notorious Inspector General of Police S.R.P. Kalluri last year, the number of fake encounters and surrenders has come down in Bastar. Even the many vigilante groups that had sprung up under his protection after the Salwa Judum was banned by the Supreme Court began to more or less behave themselves. Under the watch of the new I.G., Vivekananda Sinha, they held demonstrations within the ambit of the law and, by their standards, were restrained.

Communal polarisation

Communal polarisation also affected the election in the State ruled by a right-wing government. Christians, who make up 2 per cent of the population, felt the heat of religious persecution over the past decade. Attacks on churches, prayer meetings and pastors have made the minority community, which includes tribal people, feel vulnerable. The leaders of the Chhattisgarh Christian Forum presented a charter of demands to all the political parties ahead of the elections, asking them to ensure freedom of religion and end the discrimination against the community if they came to power. They also demanded the withdrawal of 400 fabricated charges of conversion and land-related cases against members of the community.

While both the major parties campaigned on the issue of left-wing extremism, neither had any concrete development plans for the tribal people. The Congress manifesto mentioned that the notification of a Scheduled Tribe area was a priority for the party and that a government headed by it would undertake the development of Jeeram Ghati in Bastar. The BJP promised a Central tribal university.

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