A loss of traditional base

Published : Jan 02, 2004 00:00 IST

The Congress(I)'s rout in Chhattisgarh is traced to the tribal voters' unforeseen change of political preference.

THE Assembly elections in Chhattisgarh were unique for at least two reasons. One, the Bharatiya Janata Party did not declare its chief ministerial candidate in advance and lulled the Congress(I) into believing that the battle was "half won" even before it had begun. Second, there was no perceptible development issue in focus during the campaign and the BJP made Chief Minister Ajit Jogi the issue. Jogi, with his boastful remarks and smart-alec tactics, made his rivals' task easier. The BJP went about demolishing his image with clinical precision, to pave the way for a victory in what it had initially described as a "tough challenge".

There was no surge of popular opinion in favour of the BJP. Its popularity had actually come down by 1.1 percentage points, from 40.1 per cent in this part of Madhya Pradesh in the 1998 Assembly elections to 39 per cent in this round. However, the BJP won 49 seats this time against 36 in 1998. The Congress(I) had 40.6 per cent votes and 48 seats in 1998, but this time its vote share fell by 4.3 percentage points, to 36.3 per cent, to deliver it 37 seats.

What led to the Congress(I) debacle? Not even the hullabaloo over Jogi's attempt trying to engineer defections in the BJP can hide the fact that the Congress(I) lost so heavily because it was wiped out in the Adivasi areas, its traditional stronghold. These seats, which had been with the Congress(I) for the last 50 years, have en masse shifted to the BJP. In the Bastar region alone, the Congress(I) had 10 of the 12 seats. Now it has none. Of the total 34 tribal seats, it won only eight this time as against the 20 it held. The BJP has won 24 seats, a gain of 13 seats. This time the Congress(I) and the BJP have each won 36 per cent of the Adivasi vote, much to the surprise of Congress(I) strategists.

"We are confident about our victory because our strength comes from the rural and tribal areas, where we have no competition. These people are with me," Ajit Jogi had told Frontline in an interview on October 30. He had predicted that the Congress(I) would win a comfortable majority on the basis of its support among the Adivasis. It turned out to be a gross miscalculation.

Political observers in Raipur put a different spin on the Congress(I) defeat in the tribal hinterland. They used to claim that the Congress(I) owed its consistent victory in the area to the naxalite problem. They had explained that the Congress(I) was perceived to be "soft" on the naxal groups, which, in turn, allowed fake voting in favour of the party. Also, the observers had claimed that at times the polling agents of the rival parties did not even go to the polling stations in the interior areas for fear of naxalites, who gave a boycott call every time. The ballot papers were stamped in favour of the Congress(I) even without anyone going to the polling stations, they had claimed. Although no proof exists to substantiate these conjectures, a look at the voting pattern in the tribal areas this time gives some credence to such theories.

The State's Chief Electoral Officer, Dr. K.K. Chakravarty, admitted that the Election Commission did get such complaints and this time it had taken extra precaution to ensure that the voting was free and fair in the Adivasi areas.

In Bastar, the worst naxalite-affected area, some of the remote constituencies such as Aboojhmar recorded 84 per cent voting and the overall voter turnout was over 70 per cent. According to political observers, the massive security deployment (over 139 companies of paramilitary forces were deployed in the naxalite-affected areas) instilled a sense of security among the people, who voted fearlessly. For the first time in many years, it was acknowledged that actually free and fair voting was held in the naxal-affected areas. Of the 23 tribal seats in these areas, the Congress(I) won only three.

One thing that seemed to have worked in the BJP's favour was the controversy about Jogi's tribal status and his "wily machinations" to paint Dilip Singh Judeo as "corrupt". The Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh (RSS) too played an important role. According to RSS spokesman Ram Madhav, the Sangh Parivar pitched in to make the electoral battle look like a contest between "Christianity" and tribal identity and projected it as a "dharmayudha" against conversion. In this context, say RSS leaders, the Parivar's Vanvasi Kalyan Ashram (VKA) played a significant role. Said Nishikant Joshi, VKA organising secretary in charge of Chhattisgarh: "The fight in Chhattisgarh was over a false tribal person and a real one. We had worked on social awakening in Bastar, where conversion was a big issue."

The VKA activists kept a low profile, maybe owing to the naxalite threat, but successfully saffronised the tribal parts of the State. What also seems to have appealed to tribal people was the BJP promise of a cow for each family, a full meal of "dal-bhaat" for Rs.5 at every block headquarters, and Rs.500 a month for every jobless youth who has passed Class XII. "From April 1, 2004, we will begin giving a cow to each tribal family below the poverty line and cover all tribal families over a five-year period. Similarly, other promises too begin with families below the poverty line and then reach out to other sections," the newly elected Chief Minister, Dr. Raman Singh, said.

Another factor that helped the BJP get more seats than the Congress(I) despite a fall in its vote percentage was the 7 per cent vote share of the Nationalist Congress Party (NCP). Although the NCP won only one seat, it cut into the Congress(I)'s votes. In at least 12 seats won by the BJP, the number of votes of the NCP was higher than the BJP's victory margin over the Congress(I). The NCP apparently got the majority of the votes of the Other Backward Classes, Dalits and Muslims, all traditionally Congress(I) supporters.

It was because of the NCP that the Congress(I)'s Amitesh Shukla lost in Rajim, which is part of the Mahasamund Lok Sabha seat held by his father and senior Congress(I) leader Shyama Charan Shukla. No Congress candidate had lost in Mahasamund before. The NCP leader in Chhattisgarh, Vidya Charan Shukla, who represented Mahasamund seven times but was denied the Congress(I) ticket in 1999, had vowed to ensure Jogi's defeat. A factor that damaged the Congress(I)'s prospects, say political observers, was Jogi himself. "He suffered from an image problem and despite his impressive track record of development, he could not win people's favour," said a senior political observer in Raipur. Even Congress(I) leaders now admit that Jogi, despite his zeal for development, had cost the party in terms of seats. "His style of functioning had created problems for many. He had earned a lot of ill-will," said Motilal Vora, veteran Congress(I) leader from Chhattisgarh and treasurer of the party for many years. His son Arun Vora lost from Durg.

In keeping with the Congress(I) style, a committee comprising Manmohan Singh, Pranab Mukherjee and Ahmad Patel has been constituted to look into the reasons for the party's defeat in Chhattisgarh, Madhya Pradesh and Rajasthan. Whatever its report may suggest, the Congress(I) needs to read the writing on the wall, which is clear: though lack of development will certainly cause defeat, development alone cannot deliver. Image and people's perception too matter.

As for Jogi, who until the other day was counted among Congress(I) president Sonia Gandhi's confidants, he is now down in the dumps. There seems to be no hope for his resurrection in the immediate future, especially after he addressed a letter to the Governor pledging support to a government of breakaway BJP legislators and led by an Adivasi. There is also an audio tape, in which he is heard saying that he had the sanction of the party high command in his bribery operation. He was suspended from the party and Sonia Gandhi even denied him permission to attend the Congress Working Committee meeting.

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