Assembly elections - Chhattisgarh

Food and vote

Print edition : November 29, 2013

Chief Minister Raman Singh on his way to file his nomination for the Rajnandgaon Assembly seat on October 24. The Congress candidate against him is Alka Mudaliyar, wife of Congress leader Uday Mudaliyar who was killed in the May 25 Maoist ambush. Photo: PTI

Ajit Jogi, former Chief Minister. He has said that his wife, Dr Renu Jogi, will be the Chief Minister if the Congress wins the elections. Photo: Rajeev Bhatt

Congress leaders in Chhattisgarh harp on the killing of 30 of their colleagues by naxalites in May to garner sympathy for their candidates, but the BJP, supported by the Raman Singh government’s performance, has the upper hand.

“ONE cannot win just because one wants to. It is difficult to defeat Raman Singh here,” says Sardar Balbir Singh in Rajnandgaon, the constituency of Chhattisgarh Chief Minister Raman Singh, as he sits watching three or four vehicles carrying senior Congress leaders such as Motilal Vora, B.K. Hariprasad and Ajit Jogi zip through the street. These leaders were campaigning for Alka Mudaliyar, the widow of the slain Congress leader Uday Mudaliyar. He was killed in the May 25 Giramghati massacre by Maoists.

Alka Mudaliyar, born and brought up in Rajnandgaon, has been fielded by the Congress to challenge Raman Singh in the hope that a sympathy wave will swing the election in her favour, a perception even her close supporters do not share. “She should not have come into politics,” says Sanjay, a close friend of the late Uday Mudaliyar. That seems to be the general opinion in Chhattisgarh, especially about Alka Mudaliyar and Devati Karma, widow of the slain Congress leader Mahendra Karma. The Congress party paid no heed to this sentiment as it fielded relatives of the murdered Congress leaders in the hope that the sympathy factor would work for other candidates too. And to further cash in on the emotions, the Congress party has promised to make a shaheed memorial at Giramghati in their memory. Its leaders never fail to invoke the shahadat (martyrdom) of its slain leaders while seeking votes.

But this is not going down well with the people, who have long been used to living in the shadow of death in Chhattisgarh as a result of naxalite violence. “What martyrdom? Here people are killed every day, either by the security forces or by the Maoists, but Congress leaders have never bothered to come and offer condolences, never offered to raise memorials when one of us dies. Besides, they died because of infighting in their own ranks; they did not die fighting for the country or saving others’ lives,” says Satinder Singh, a Sikh trader in Rajnandgaon, hinting at the conspiracy theories doing the rounds after the killings. Initial reports had actually suggested the hand of insiders in the Congress in the killings, and the National Investigation Agency (NIA) had been tasked to look into the conspiracy angle. The NIA report is yet to be made public, but people seem to believe in the Congress infighting theory. Except in one or two seats, like that of slain state Congress chief Nand Kumar Patel’s son, who has been fielded from Kharsia, or Dantewada from where Mahendra karma’s widow is contesting, the supposed sympathy wave appears to be falling flat.

The electoral battle in Chhattisgarh is eventually boiling down to becoming a referendum on whether Raman Singh should be given a third term. Even his harshest critics hesitate to trash him, and the most severe criticism about his governance is that he failed to curb corruption. But so far there are no corruption charges against the Chief Minister himself, and even his adversaries grudgingly agree that his rice at Rs.2 a kg for the poor has been a huge success. The public distribution system is working well, and his government has actually managed to pay farmers an acceptance price well in time. The power supply system and the condition of the roads have improved.

“Our work is there for everyone to see. We worked for the gaon, garib, and kisan and will be rewarded by the people for our work. We will win between 61 to 71 seats,” says Lilaram Bhojwani, Raman Singh’s election representative in Rajnandgaon. According to him, the people will weigh the performance of Congress party’s three years of rule under Ajit Jogi and 10 years under Raman Singh. Besides, he says, they will also compare the situation in neighbouring Andhra Pradesh and Maharashtra, which are Congress-ruled States and where farmers have been committing suicide at a frightening rate. “In this information age, people won’t believe any one of us without looking at all aspects. So we are confident,” says the Bharatiya Janata Party’s (BJP) election management committee member Pankaj Jha, who is also the editor of the party’s mouthpiece, Deepkamal. He dismisses as hogwash the Congress’s promise of Rs.2,000 per quintal as the minimum support price (MSP) to farmers for paddy (it is Rs.1,310 at present) or free 35 kg of rice to every card holder.

Jha says the BJP’s work in the naxalite-dominated tribal areas will see it through. “We have started a skill development livelihood college in Dantewada, which was recently given a national award by the Prime Minister. Our initiative of imparting coaching to class XII tribal students in the Bastar region ensured that 150 of them succeeded in the AIEEE [All India Engineering Entrance Examination] exam, which was unprecedented. We have opened 17,000 primary schools in the tribal areas alone. Our focus now is on providing education and employment to all so that people can become self-reliant. So far we were providing fish to the tribal people, now our focus will be to teach them how to catch fish,” says Jha.

Even loyal Congress supporters, who have been traditionally voting for the party and would not ditch it ever, admit that the Raman government has done some good work, such as in providing food security. “But look at the prices of other commodities. He, too, has failed to control prices, and for that he will have to pay the price. Besides, his Ministers and bureaucrats are corrupt, and he has failed to take action. Now is the time to change,” says Triveni Sarthi, a panchayat body member from Anjora village in Durg district.

Given the sort of public support Raman Singh enjoys, it is indeed a tough task for the Congress party to try and dislodge him. But it is trying hard. The party is promising not only free rice to all ration-card holders but also increased procurement price for paddy, free power to farmers, air ambulance facilities in the tribal areas in the far-flung jungles, better education and employment facilities, an increase in the unemployment allowance, and many other things. The Congress is also promising to increase reservation for the Schedules Castes from the present 12 per cent in the State to 16 per cent, taking the quantum of total reservation to 62 per cent. But it is debatable whether this will cut much ice with the voters because in Chhattisgarh a strong anti-incumbency sentiment directed against the Central government headed by the party is evident. “They could have done much of this already because they are in government at the Centre and also in some of the neighbouring States. Why have they not done it there?” asks Surendra Sahu of the Baloda Bazar area near Raipur.

Tribal people’s votes

The tribal region of Bastar, which has 12 seats, plays a decisive role. Of these 12 seats, four are in Bastar, three in Kanker, three in Kondagaon, and one each in Bijapur and Sukma. The BJP’s victory in the 2003 and 2008 elections was scripted in this region as it won nine and 11 seats respectively. If the Congress intends to wrest power from the BJP, it will have to regain at least 50 per cent of these seats, but that seems to be a tough task because it does not have any strategy here. The Raman Singh government was much criticised for the controversial Salwa Judum movement as innocent tribal people got sandwiched between the security forces and the Maoists. But the Congress was an equal partner in the crime because the movement was led by the late Mahendra Karma, the then Congress Legislature Party leader. The Raman Singh government only supported it when it gained momentum.

Governments run by the Congress, whether at the Centre or in other naxal-affected States such as Andhra Pradesh or Maharashtra, have failed to come up with viable anti-naxal strategies. They have also not worked out any policy to protect the lives and livelihoods of tribal people, who bear the brunt of displacement and other disruptions caused by development. It is not certain, therefore, whether the party will be able to win back the tribal people in Chhattisgarh. The Raman Singh government, at least, has initiated some baby steps, which are already yielding good results. A lot, however, needs to be done if the roots of the problems in the tribal areas are to be tackled.

For example, health services are absent in these areas. A recent Comptroller and Auditor General (CAG) report says over 60 per cent of the children in tribal areas are malnourished. But, unfortunately, no party talks about this. No party talks about the problems of livelihood of the tribal people who get displaced by various projects, or about the atrocities committed on the tribal people in the name of tackling left-wing insurgency. The Raman Singh government has tried to win over the tribal people by giving them land pattas, or by giving rice at Rs.2 a kg, or by giving them free salt, but the Congress offers nothing except free rice. The party does not even have a strong leader who can inspire confidence in its promises. The BJP, on the other hand, has the face of Raman Singh and his performance to claim that it has delivered something.

Why Ajit Jogi still matters

The lack of a strong leader in Chhattisgarh, say political observers, can prove to be a handicap for the Congress party. It is no secret that former Chief Minister Ajit Jogi remains a strong factor in the party here as he, despite being wheelchair-bound since 2004, has chief ministerial ambitions, either for himself or for someone in his family, like his wife, something the other Congress leaders in the State would not happily accept. “But we cannot discuss this issue yet. Why stir a hornet’s nest?” says a senior Congress leader, elaborating that antagonising Jogi at this stage could cost the party a few seats. In the past, rebel candidates supported by him had spoiled the party’s chances in seven or eight seats. In 2003, Jogi tried to bribe some MLAs in order to garner their support, but the plan got aborted as he was exposed.

This time he has already declared that his wife, Dr Renu Jogi, who is contesting the Assembly election from Kota, will be the Chief Minister if the party comes to power. Although other Congress leaders choose not to comment on this, this has created some confusion about the issue of who the Chief Minister will be. “We don’t want a repeat of Uttarakhand where Vijay Bahuguna was paradropped, at the cost of almost splitting the party,” says a senior leader. This confusion about leadership, especially when there is a clear choice in the opposition camp, can prove to be costly for the Congress.

The presence of Communist Party of India candidates in at least two seats can also damage the Congress’ prospects. Manish Kunjam, a prominent CPI leader, is contesting from Konta and Bomraram Kawasi from Dantewada. Kunjam contested from Dantewada in 2008 against the BJP’s Bhima Mandavi and finished second, and this time, too, he is expected to do well, which will mean trouble for the Congress candidate there. Kawasi can cause problems for Devati Karma. “Since the non-BJP vote is getting divided, it will help the BJP,” says the veteran CPI leader Chitaranjan Bakshi.

It is no smooth sailing all the way for Raman Singh. In a small State like Chhattisgarh, even a small shift of vote can cause big upheavals. Though the BJP had 50 out of the 90 seats in 2008 as against 38 of the Congress, the difference in the vote share was negligible, only 1.8 per cent. So even the smallest shift in the vote share can make or break a party’s prospects.

Especially worrying for the BJP is the prospect of a rebellion by those who were denied the ticket. This can become a big problem for Raman Singh himself because Karuna Shukla, a niece of former Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee, is known to be upset about some of her supporters being denied the ticket and has resigned from the party. She has pledged her support to Alka Mudaliyar, who is contesting against Raman Singh. But stories of heartburning abound in the Congress too.

It remains to be seen whether the sops announced by the BJP in its manifesto, such as rice at Re.1 a kg for all, free power for farmers, an MSP of Rs.2,100 per quintal for paddy, free laptops and tablets for students and special schemes for the girl child will win the election for it.

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