A sudden change of preference

Published : May 21, 2004 00:00 IST

"ALL parties contesting the elections are exploitative. Casting votes does not change lives." So claims a Naxalite pamphlet in Jagdalpur, in Bastar district of Chhattisgarh.

Bastar, along with Surguja, Raigarh and Kanker, form a reserved tribal parliamentary constituency, which remained a Congress bastion for years. However, the recent Assembly elections punctured all the easy assumptions as the tribal population voted overwhelmingly for the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), enabling the party to win 24 out of the 34 tribal seats. Several explanations have been offered for this change of preference. "The excesses of Ajit Jogi rule, the positive image of the Prime Minister and the immense organisational capacity of the Sangh bodies such as the Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh and the Vishwa Hindu Parishad helped us win over this area," says BJP representative Shakeel Ahmed.

Mahendra Karma, the Congress candidate from Bastar and the leader of the Opposition in the State, claims that the BJP's victory was mainly because of its generous promises - a cow for each family, writing-off of debt, unemployment allowance for families below the poverty line, and so on. Admitting that the tribal resentment against Chief Minister Ajit Jogi and his dubious tribal status as well as his autocratic governance worked against the Congress in the Assembly elections, he says: "Whatever work has been done for tribal development has been done by the Congress. The National Democratic Alliance (NDA) has no separate policy for the tribal interest."

Besides raising the education and health indices of the area, transport and communication facilities are the first things needed, he says. Bastar district, before it was split into three, was larger than countries such as Belgium or Israel, but much of its population in the interior settlements remains untouched by the outside world.

The Congress has long taken the tribal vote for granted. Ratanlal Sorana, a former Congress leader from the area, is alleged to have distributed photographs of himself and Jawaharlal Nehru among the people, commanding them to worship these as icons. This arrogance, combined with official apathy, is responsible for the frustration among Adivasis. Several livelihood issues confront the tribal population, such as land settlement, access to forest resources, and exploitation by middlemen. Rajiv Gandhi once said that out of every rupee allotted to the tribal people not even five paise reaches them, and that statement holds true to this day, according to a local official. "The Congress started fishery and animal husbandry schemes, and irrigation projects like the so-called Jogi Dabri Project," says Karma. The BJP, meanwhile, has also fulfilled some of its electoral promises. Salt is available at 25 paise per kilo, and the community-run dal-bhaat schemes are being implemented all over the State. The promised schemes of granting a cow and unemployment allowance for families below the poverty line remain to be worked out by the State government.

However, the BJP is backed by a clear-cut cultural agenda of awakening Hindutva among the tribal population. Its sister organisations such as the RSS and the VHP have been working here for years, "to take on the Congress challenge in Bastar and make them lick the dust," says Rajbahadur Singh Rana, RSS chief in the region. "We have more than 200 Vanvasi Kalyan (tribal welfare) Ashrams and over 1,500 contact villages. We run over 400 Ekal Vidyalayas and Sewa Bharati schools and medical centres," he adds. By emphasising social work together with Hindu piety and living among Adivasis, RSS activists have embedded the organisation deeply into tribal society and helped the BJP secure a previously unimaginable hold on the area.

It is the alienation and backwardness among the tribal people that fuels both the RSS and the Naxalite movement here. While the RSS stresses on mangled Hindu pride, the Naxalite movement focusses on the yawning gulf between development projects for the tribal people and the reality of their lives. The Naxalites oppose the Narnaar steel plant, proposed projects like the Ravghat railway line and the Bodhghat irrigation plan because they will destroy forests and uproot villages. They even accuse road-building schemes of being a means to facilitate capitalist extraction and loot the natural resources available to the tribal people. "Not only the electoral process, but the entire establishment is controlled by the exploitative classes. Our country is not a real democracy and the only way to end this oppressive order is a new popular revolution, not the sham of democracy," asserts the Naxalite appeal. In fact, in the Naxalite-dominated Dantewara and Bijapur areas, polling was down to less than 15 per cent this election.

"Bastar used to be a peaceful, serene place. Both the Naxalites and the RSS represent an attack on this socio-cultural fabric of the tribal people'people." stresses Mahendra Karma. Karma has won elections earlier as a Communist Party of India (CPI) candidate and also as an independent, riding the resistance to the proposed changes under the Sixth Schedule of the Constitution, which would curtail the rights of the non-tribal population in the area.

"Politics in India is a peculiar way of feeling assertive and alive," writes Pratap Bhanu Mehta in The Burden of Democracy, as he explains how democracy is driven by a clamour for recognition when the underlying structures of injustice have yet to be dealt with. Both Congress and BJP leaders like Karma, Nandkumar Sai and Baliram Kashyap have played a central role in Chhattisgarh politics, taking up tribal issues. (In fact, Nandkumar Sai, who contested from Surguja, has been waging a long war against the use of alcohol among tribal people. When told that alcohol was as integral to their lives as salt, he decided to stop eating salt as a demonstration of his belief.) Despite the usual charge that these representatives often become urbanised and forget their causes, it is only this democratic representation that keeps Adivasi issues on the map.

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