Change in the air

Print edition : May 10, 2019

Villagers crossing the Indravati river to cast their vote. Photo: Divya Trivedi

A polling booth in Muchnar under heavy security. Photo: Divya Trivedi

At a polling booth in Chitalanka. Photo: Divya Trivedi

The momentum of the Assembly election held in December 2018 and the Congress’ willingness to tackle the common man’s problems may see the party pulling off an upset win.

During the monsoon every year, from July to September, the Indravati river rises in flood. Through parts of Bastar, it virtually creates a political border between the areas ruled by the Indian state and the forests of the “liberated” zone, dominated by Maoist guerillas and their Janatana sarkar, or parallel government.

Every election is a litmus test for the solidity of the boundary and how far it can be pushed. On April 11, men, women and children from across the river journeyed to polling stations in Dantewada to cast their votes for the 17th Lok Sabha election. Their names in the story have been changed to protect their identities.

Having started a day earlier, Sunna Poyam reached the river before the sun reached its zenith. He had left his village, Tumrigunda, which is more than 50 kilometres away, on foot the previous day. Two others from his villagers rode a bicycle. The three climbed onto a donghi, or narrow wooden boat, and hand-paddled across the river. They rested on some rocks to talk to Frontline, before making their way on foot to a polling station in Muchnar, 1.5 km away in Geedam tehsil of Dantewada.

No one asked them to vote, not even their sarpanch, who lived in the town and hardly ever visited the village. They were scared of both the security forces and the dadas (armed guerillas). They came to vote because it was their right, and they wanted a bridge over the river to have access to the other side in all seasons. They said they would vote for the haath (hand) since the phool (flower) had not done anything for them in the past five years. When a teacher from Cherpal, more than a 100 km away, said he would vote for the flower, the others said that it was his individual choice to vote for whoever he chose.

A little further away, in Barsur, 70-year-old Mannu Kuwasi removed the black ink on his nail with a stone “so that the dadas do not see”. Even though his sarpanch, Khasiram Mandavi, was a member of the Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh (RSS) and had asked everyone to vote for the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), he would vote for the Congress as his family had been close to the party for decades.

Elections in Chhattisgarh were held in three phases. On April 11, the Dantewada, Bijapur, Jagdalpur, Konta, Narayanpur, Chitrakot and Kondagaon Assembly segments in the reserved Scheduled Tribe constituency of Bastar went to the polls. The constituencies of Kanker, Rajnandgaon and Mahasamund in the second phase and Durg, Bilaspur, Raigarh, Surguja, Janjgir-champa (SC), Raipur and Korba in the third phase went to the polls on April 18 and 23 respectively. In the previous Lok Sabha election, 10 of these were won by the BJP and one by the Congress.

The tribal peoples’ vote, which went to the BJP for the past 15 years, is slowly shifting to the Congress. Pakistan-bashing and the Hindutva agenda worked well in the urban areas but did not resonate with the villagers, farmers or Adivasis. The rout that the BJP faced in the Assembly elections in December last year was largely because of Raman Singh’s pro-corporate agenda and the anti-incumbency factor. Of the 90 Assembly seats, the Congress won 68, the BJP 15, and the Janta Congress Chhattisgarh (JCC)-Bahujan Samajwadi Party (BSP) combine seven. Ajit Jogi of the JCC is not contesting the elections this time but is supporting the BSP. Rumour has it that most of his MLAs and party workers are defecting to the Congress.

Electoral message

The electoral debacle of the BJP was not because of a sudden wave in favour of the Congress. It was a message from the vulnerable communities that they had suffered enough and wanted a change in governance. It was also a sign that people were fed up of the government’s land grab and anti-Maoist operations which put ordinary people’s lives and livelihoods at perpetual risk. While memories of the terrible days under the Salwa Judum were holding the tribal people back from fully supporting the Congress, the new leadership and agenda of the party were seen as positive signs. Aam Aadmi Party member and Adivasi leader Soni Sori openly supported the Congress as she had faith in the leadership of Rahul Gandhi. “When I met him recently, he seemed different from the rest of the Congress leadership and keenly listened to our problems. I am willing to give him a chance,” she told Frontline.

Returning to Adivasis the land that had been acquired for a Tata project in Lohandiguda and Takarguda earned the Congress the goodwill of the people of Bastar. It also sent a message of hope to people in other parts of Chhattisgarh that their land too might be returned. The Congress manifesto, which spoke about debt waivers, implementation of the Forest Rights Act and increase in the minimum support price for paddy, was a turning point in the campaign.

The urban population of Chhattisgarh consists mostly of migrants from north India who control the social and economic resources of the State. They have an inclination towards Narendra Modi and the BJP. They constitute 10 per cent of the population; 12 per cent of the population is Scheduled Caste (S.C.) and 32 per cent is Scheduled Tribe (S.T.). The Congress aimed at capturing the votes of this 44 per cent. Around 45 per cent of the people belong to Other Backward Classes (OBC). “Amongst the OBCs, the big caste groups are Sahu, who, to a certain extent, favour the BJP. The Devangans also lean towards the BJP to some extent. But the smaller sub-castes of the OBCs are with the Congress,” explained Sudip Shrivastava of Bilaspur.

After the debacle in the Assembly elections, the BJP replaced all of its sitting MPs with new faces for the Lok Sabha election. This was a big blow to the confidence of BJP supporters, who saw it as conceding defeat. “Even the Chief Minister’s son did not get the ticket,” a party worker pointed out. The sole Minister from Chhattisgarh in the Modi government, Vishnu Deo Sai, was denied the ticket and so was the BJP State president, Vikram Usendi, the MP from Kanker. These changes were reportedly brought about by Amit Shah.

The non-performance of BJP legislators also had irked people of all castes and communities. While the upper-caste hardliners will vote for Modi, the more aware upper-caste voters will have no qualms in shifting to the Congress. As Gujral of Janjgir, and advocate, said, “Modi is a feku. He did not give us anything when he came here. Parliamentarians from this area had no achievements to show in all these years. It is not that only the minorities are tired. They did not do anything even for our caste or community. Despite the BJP ruling both at the Centre and in the State, we remained a backward region.”

In the urban area of Champa in north Chhattisgarh, Rajan Devangan, a shopkeeper, hails from a family of long-time Congress supporters. He was a BJP follower until the last election and believes that the game changed three months ago.

He admitted that while there was a Modi wave then, the wind moved in a different direction after the Congress revealed its manifesto. The Nyuntam Aay Yojana, or the NYAY scheme, appealed to people and Rahul Gandhi seemed to have matured as a leader. Devangan predicted that the Congress would get five to six seats. However, he saw demonetisation and the goods and services tax (GST) as positive changes in the long term and believed that black marketing and corruption had reduced under Modi. He also thought Modi gave a befitting reply to Pakistan.

A little distance away, in the Janjgir main market, heated debate ensued at the popular Om Sweets, a hub of charged political discussions. Even though the owners were BJP supporters, their chaiwallah and server, Ram Kumar Gond, was assertive about his faith in Rahul Gandhi. “He has done so much for the poor and farmers. Modi is making a fool of us.” The Congress’ anouncement to revert back to distributing 35 kg rice to each family instead of the seven kg per person under Raman Singh would be beneficial to people like him, he said. When asked about what he thought of Modi calling himself a chaiwallah, he said, “Is he really? Who has ever seen him make tea?”

A man with sunglasses and cloth tied around his face to beat the heat overheard the conversation and said that Modi would return to power. Sandeep Banafar proclaimed that he was a savarna and supported Modi because he made India’s name known internationally. “Modiji doesn’t participate in the politics of freeloading,” he claimed before taking off with his kachori.

An old man with a saffron tilak on his forehead and saffron bands on his wrist joined in the conversation and said that debates around India-Pakistan and national-anti-national did not concern him. The real issues were jobs and education, according to him. “I am just coming from the bank and cannot withdraw my own money. So many rules have changed. Please ask someone who has a marriage in the family. Rural folk deal with hard cash. They do not have ATM or PayTM.” Outside a men’s salon in the Patharipara slum area of Korba, the evening wait for haircuts transformed into a lively political debate when old-time RSS hands met an old guard of the Congress. Hanuman Prasad Kaushik, Bhagvat Chaurasiya and Ramalal Shrivas admired Modi for giving a free hand to the military and bringing back Wing Commander Abhinandan Varthaman. R.K. Shukla felt that Abhinandan got arrested because of Modi’s mistakes, to begin with.

In another slum area of Korba, Sitamarhi, smoke billowed from the houses at dinner time. Women complained that they still had to burn coal to cook food as they did not get gas cylinders under the BJP’s Ujjwala scheme. Kusi, a 60-year-old woman, filled the application form four times with no result. Firtini was an exception who got a cylinder but continued to cook on coal as a refill was too expensive. The Congress candidate who won in the Assembly election from the area gave water connection to every house, built roads, and was building a pandal and a well, but Kumari Prajapati whispered in my ear that all of them would vote for Modi. For no apparent reason.

Contrasting narratives

While the BJP narrative was mostly about India’s superpower status and the powerful leadership of Modi, and the Congress was talking about local issues, the PM Awas Yojana of the BJP government was a much-talked-about scheme across the rural belt of Chhattisgarh. Muniv Shukla, who lived in Champa but worked in 20 villages of Kartala tehsil of Korba, said that while Modi had simply replaced “Indira” with “PM” in the name of the scheme, the fact that people could build a house as per their choice was much appreciated.

In Bastar too, the houses being built under the scheme stood out and people living in them pledged their allegiance to the BJP. However, Shukla said that forced migration was a major issue in Korba, which was exacerbated because of the squeezing of funds for the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme (MGNREGS) by the BJP government at the Centre. Around 30 to 35 per cent of the villagers in Janjgir-Champa were forced to migrate. In some villages, it was as high as 55 per cent. The BJP government had said that people migrated out of pleasure. Moreover, the awareness about fake news is increasing and people do not take every bit of information on WhatsApp to be true, unlike earlier. “This will dent the BJP’s chances of campaigning through social media, and the Congress will get six or seven seats,” Shukla told Frontline.

Counter-propaganda is emerging as a vital strategy of the Congress in Chhattisgarh. Chief Minister Baghel travelled with Brigadier (Retd) Pradeep Yadu to his public meetings and had closed-door interactions with Congress workers. The Brigadier advised them on how to break the BJP’s narrative of the air strikes by asking how Pulwama was possible in the first place. “Jahaan ek chidiya bhi par nahi maar sakti, vahaan 200 kg RDX kaise pohoncha?” (Where a bird cannot even flap its wings, how did 200 kg of RDX enter?)

BJP’s communal agenda

In Janjgir-Champa reserved constituency for Scheduled Castes, the BSP is going all out to win, said Vibhishan Patrey of the Dalit Adhikar Manch. “Whoever wins from Janjgir-Champa seat will represent 35 lakh Scheduled Caste voters of Chhattisgarh,” he said. The past 15 years of BJP rule saw a spike in the number of atrocities against the S.Cs, because of the party’s communal agenda.

The BJP cleverly exploited the proud Satnami section, a subgroup in the S.C. community, and framed their leaders in dubious cases. But some Satnami leaders are also joining hands with the Congress. Like Shiv Kumar Dahariya, who told Frontline that “of the 90 seats in Chhattisgarh, in 40 seats the S.C. population forms 10 to 32 per cent. They vote as a bloc and whichever party they vote for gets the majority in those seats. During BJP’s rule, our constitutional rights were steadily eroded. So we have decided to make sure the Congress wins this time. At least they will guarantee our constitutional rights, if nothing else.”

Jal, jangal and jameen (water, forest and land) were the major issues the people face in Chhattisgarh. Chief Minister Bhupesh Baghel, under the leadership of Rahul Gandhi, has promised that the basic rights of the people will not be violated and that they will implement the Forest Rights Act properly. In Janjgir-Champa, for instance, the government had signed MoUs to build 52 power plants. The land displacement for one power plant is close to 2,000 hectares. When Frontline asked the Chief Minister what his plans for the power plants were, he indicated that he was not interested in taking them forward.

It is clear that the people of Chhattisgarh have given the Congress a mandate to perform. Victory in the Assembly elections has done a lot to salvage the image of the Congress nationally and acted as a booster shot just before the Lok Sabha election. Whether that result will be replicated in the general election is a moot question. But if ever there is any political advantage ripe for the picking, it is here.

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