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Remote, not cut off

Print edition : Dec 07, 2007 T+T-

The three remote, tribal constituencies in Himachal Pradesh are voting ahead of the rest of the State this time, contrary to tradition.

in Kaza/Kalpa

WHOEVER said that Indias greatest achievement is in the political sphere was more than right. The countrys greatest victory lies in the continuing, enthusiastic and determined participation of the people in the democratic process. Nowhere is this truer than in the snowy heights of the Himalayas, where a greater proportion of people turn up to vote despite the difficult terrain, bad weather and lack of transport options. High up in the cold deserts of Spiti, where the very starkness and remoteness leads visitors into silence and awe, you can witness the fluttering fates of the major political parties in the shape of colourful flags interwoven with the rows of Tibetan prayer flags. The stripes and hand of the Congress, the similar, blended colours of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) with a pink lotus, and the blue elephant of the Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP).

As some of the least accessible sections of the electorate cast their vote this week, they will decide the fate of the next Assembly in Himachal Pradesh. The three tribal constituencies of Kinnaur, Bharmour and Lahaul-Spiti will go to the polls earlier than the rest, in a marked departure from tradition. Until now, elections in these constituencies were held in the summer, after the snows had melted and after the rest of the State had finished voting and the government had already been formed.

The major political parties seem to be have been caught off guard by the Election Commissions decision to conduct elections earlier in these constituencies. They put on a brave face in their campaigns but did not bother to put together an election manifesto in time.

In fact, traditional methods of campaigning rarely work around here. Large parts of these constituencies do not get newspapers until they are two days old, and some do not get them at all, especially in the winter. Spiti does not have any printing press, so there is no attempt at printing and distributing propaganda material, and no pamphlets are handed out. A few posters are put up on walls, but for the most part, campaigning is a door-to-door activity. Since the electorate is small and spread over a vast area, campaigning needs to be both intensive and extensive; links with the voters must be established way ahead of the elections.

Frontline visited the regional offices of the Congress and the BJP, and it turned out that their manifestos were still awaiting the main election. Members of both parties said that they did not feel there was a need for a manifesto since they would contest this election on local issues. When asked what these issues were, a Congress party member cited development while a BJP representative said corruption and high prices, the partys plank in the rest of the State as well.

According to local leaders who had petitioned the Election Commission demanding early elections in the tribal districts, the electorate will end up voting for the victorious party if these constituencies go to the polls after a government had been formed. Nevertheless, voters in these districts appear to have a clear sense of their own needs, and their mandate usually reflects this.

In Kinnaur, for instance, several voters appeared not dissatisfied with their lives and they were aware that development had indeed taken place. Kinnaurs fortunes have, over the past few decades, changed considerably. Cash crops such as rajma (kidney beans), potatoes, apples and other fruits have changed the face of the local economy. While there remain a few thousand marginal and landless peasants in the district, anybody who owns even a small tract of land and a few apple trees can earn enough to survive.

For this, the credit goes to Samuel Evan Stokes, an American who settled in the region and planted the first apple trees in the 1920s. His daughter Vidya Stokes, who is with the Congress, is a political heavy weight now and a strong contender for the Chief Ministers position.

With the building of highways and pucca roads to most of the villages, procurement and transportation of produce have become relatively smooth. However, the people are reluctant to credit any one party with this development.

Ashwini, a young man in Kalpa, who runs a small music store, told Frontline that though he had to give up his studies after his parents died, he was happy enough. Most people have land. If you cannot get into a government job, you get into apples. Elsewhere, they make a big noise about employment. But how can the government employ everybody? In these parts, government jobs are not such a huge issue. Roads were an issue but now we have roads, were okay.

He added, however, that he has a soft spot for Jagat Singh, the sitting legislator and Congress candidate, because he pays attention to sports. I play football. My friends are not so much into politics. But we like leaders who promote sports.

Tila Devi Thakur, who owns a trinket stall in Rekong Peo, the administrative centre of the district, shrugged and said, Theyre all the same. This one comes and says well do this for you. That one says the same. It is true, though, that dal has been expensive this year. The Janata Party is okay. The Congress is okay, too. But the problem is the chamchas [hangers-on and yes-men] they mislead the big leaders. The big leaders are not bad. They have no need to be bad.

In this region, people still refer to Chief Minister Virbhadra Singh as Raja Sahib and his wife as the Rani Sahiba. Even those who do not support them look upon them as royalty deserving deference.

But R.S. Negi, a retired bureaucrat who belongs to Pooh in Kinnaur, believes that things are changing. Now, the situation is fluid. Earlier, younger aspirants would not contest against the big leaders. Also, there were only two major parties in the fray. People have been voting, so far, for whoever they promise to vote for. Now, people are taciturn; you cannot count on their vote. Theres more choice and a savvier electorate that wants returns on its votes.

Negi is currently heading the protest movement against the Karchham-Wangtoo hydel project and believes that the current model of development is bound to impact both agriculture and forests. The project-affected people already have a growing sense of resentment. At an election rally there recently, people did not allow the Rani Sahiba to speak, something that was unprecedented here.

Negi also believes that environment and related issues are soon going to become raging local issues and a pointer exists in the form of Sushil Sana, a former Congressman who is now contesting the election on a BSP ticket. Sana is also heading the Khab-Shahso Sangharsh Samiti, which is protesting against another mega project in Kinnaur.

Lahual and Spiti, which account for one-third of the geographical area of the State, may not have prospered in the same way as the rest of Himachal Pradesh, but there definitely have been changes and improvements in the regions average income. There are schools in every village, and attendance is high. The majority of the people are either State employees or farmers. The area has witnessed a minor green revolution, with peas emerging as a major source of income. Along with tourism, this has brought in the scent of prosperity to the region.

Party flags fluttering

Even in the cold deserts of Spiti, construction activities are visible everywhere and have become one of the major sources of income. Construction is also a major factor in the political dynamics of the region. Rigzin Namgyal, a resident of Spiti, pointed out that politics here was as self-serving as anywhere else. Earlier, the clan leaders would bring in the vote. Now, the contractors do. Money has been poured into the constituency through the governments Public Works and Irrigation Departments. Hundreds of crores is a lot of money for a population of about six thousand. There are 300-400 contractors, and they control the vote. If they get contracts from the government, they get their family and friends to vote.

According to Satish Sharma, Professor of Sociology at Himachal University, while these areas have been demarcated as tribal seats, from an anthropological perspective, the people are not tribal. Politically and administratively, they were accorded tribal status because of their strategic location. These are border areas and the government did not want trouble. The people wanted the benefits that came with the tribal status and the State thought it best to give them what they wanted.

In other words, remote they might be, but disengaged they are not. The voters of Lahaul-Spiti, in fact, registered a turnout of 77.77 per cent in the last Assembly elections, which is far higher than the national average and better than the State average of 74.51 per cent.

Observers have been speculating on whether the turnout will be just as high this time in the wintry weather. Apart from the question of braving the chill, several hundred people migrate each year to the plains or the lower hills in the winter. Such people may not be able to cast their vote.

Nevertheless, a woman employee with the Forest Department said that elections were the time to assess whether things were likely to get any better under a new regime. Earlier, people just did as they were asked. Or, they sniffed at the wind and followed its bent. Now, people note which way the wind is blowing, but sometimes, they bend the wind a little bit, bend it to their own will.