Chhattisgarh Chief Minister
Bhupesh Baghel addresses
a rally in Raipur,
October 19, 2023
IT IS HARD TO FIND SILGER AND PUWARTI on a map. But in the polling for Assembly elections in Chhattisgarh this month, these two villages will make history. It is for the first time since Madhya Pradesh was divided in the year 2000 that polling stations will be established in these villages. Located deep in the jungles of Konta Assembly constituency in Sukma district, these villages were ‘out of bounds’ for anyone except heavily armed security forces and in ‘sufficient’ numbers. Politicians, of course, could not dare to venture here in the ordinary course of things. Puwarti is also the home of Hidma, the dreaded and elusive Maoist commander who has wreaked havoc in the Bastar region.
That is changing now. A security officer whose men patrol the area regularly told Open that “the situation is sensitive. There have been threats by Maoists against anyone who ventures out to vote and they have given a call for boycotting the elections. But I think voters will come out and exercise their democratic right.”
Winds of change are indeed blowing in this restive region. All the participants in the electoral drama—politicians, security forces, and Maoists—are facing challenges. For the ruling Congress that won the bulk of seats in the area last time, the 20 seats that go to polls on November 7 are no longer a ‘cakewalk’. For the security forces, ensuring a peaceful and non-violent election is a challenge as the area is large, heavily forested, and requires concentration of men to ensure Maoists don’t disrupt the elections. Finally, Maoists are desperate: large parts of the region now have a strong security presence and it is no longer easy for them to strike at will.
The 2018 election was a direct contest between the then ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and Congress. After three terms in office, the Raman Singh government appeared tired and Congress bounced back to power. The political arena had no other contestants. Other political formations, such as first Chief Minister Ajit Jogi’s Janta Congress Chhattisgarh fell by the wayside. Importantly for the restive Bastar division, Maoists tacitly agreed to let elections proceed without disruption.
Five years on, the situation has altered dramatically. Now there are two other parties in the fray apart from Congress and BJP. Until last week, the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) had released five lists of candidates totalling 57 contestants for the 90-member Chhattisgarh Assembly. Another new entrant is the Hamar Raj Party (HRP), a political outfit floated by the Sarva Adivasi Samaj, an organisation with pockets of influence in the Adivasi constituencies of the state. Earlier this month, HRP announced a list of 19 candidates, including eight for the constituencies in the first round of polling on November 7.
Most crucially, this time, Maoists have declared a boycott of polling and are not backing any candidate even behind the curtains. In Bastar’s political setup, when Maoists don’t openly boycott polls, they usually end up backing some candidate. What this means is that there is no violence in the concerned constituency.
These two factors are leading to cross-cutting effects across the region where the first phase of voting will take place and have upset political calculations in many constituencies for all parties but especially for Congress.
In Konta Assembly constituency in Sukma district, the ruling party’s Kawasi Lakhma—minister for commerce and industry and a political heavyweight—is pitted against the Communist Party of India’s (CPI) Manish Kunjam, another well-known Adivasi leader and former MLA who represented the constituency in undivided Madhya Pradesh from 1990 to 1998. Konta is a largely rural constituency where the only urban area is Konta Proper, a hamlet that borders Andhra Pradesh. Both leaders are vying for the rural vote located in one of the most difficult parts of the state where Maoists can scare away voters by simply calling for a boycott.
Given the political climate in Konta until about a month ago, Lakhma was considered to be on a sticky wicket because of anti-incumbency. Kunjam’s prospects were thought to be improving. Despite Maoists calling a boycott, Kawasi remains in deep trouble. Konta has the making of a tough contest.
Something similar—but in a different direction—is being witnessed in Bijapur constituency in Bijapur district. Here, the contest is between the sitting MLA Vikram Mandavi of Congress and Mahesh Gagada of BJP, the two-time MLA who had represented the constituency in 2008 and 2013. In 2018, Gagada lost to Mandavi who was once associated with the Salwa Judum campaign but later distanced himself from the controversial anti-Maoist venture. This time, with a Maoist boycott, the rural areas of the constituency are likely to witness ‘difficulties’ even as Bijapur town itself—where BJP has a measure of influence—is likely to be less fraught from a security perspective. As in Konta, Bijapur is witnessing a tough fight between Congress and BJP.
It is Tuesday mid-morning and a crowd has gathered outside the Hanuman temple on the main arterial road of Antagarh. Antagarh is a hamlet in Kanker district and passes off as an urban area in a predominantly rural district. The assortment of people is, surprisingly, a mix of party workers from both BJP and Congress. After paying obeisance, they begin addressing the gathered reporters. Local grievances are aired, political parties are blamed for not heeding people’s problems—in this case creating a separate district of Pakhanjur by hiving it off from Kanker—and steam is let off. It is one of those ritual, poll-eve political manoeuvres where shifts in political allegiance take place. But what is interesting here is the pledge of support to Mantu Ram Pawar, an independent candidate.
The situation has altered dramatically. Now there are two other parties in the fray apart from Congress and BJP. AAP and another new entrant, the Hamar Raj Party, a political outfit floated by the Sarva Adivasi Samaj
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PAWAR IS AS CLOSE as one can get to a man for all seasons in Chhattisgarh’s politics. He has traversed his career through Congress and BJP and is now an independent. In a controversial bypoll to Antagarh in September 2014, Pawar allegedly ‘threw away’ the election, enabling BJP’s Bhojraj Nag to win. He later joined BJP only to be expelled after he made allegations against the party in connection with the same bypoll. But none of that matters. As a well-known Adivasi leader, he commands his own following in Antagarh.
Something similar can be seen in the case of another independent, Anoop Nag, the sitting MLA who won on a Congress ticket in 2018. Nag was denied the party’s candidature this time and filed his nomination as an independent. Much like Pawar, he, too, has pockets of influence in Antagarh. If these independents were not enough, AAP is also in the fray with Sant Ram Salam as its candidate. He is likely to cut into Congress’ vote.
The result of these rebellions and cross-cutting allegiances, pulls and pressures, is that BJP’s candidate, Vikram Usendi, is in a zone of comfort. Locals say Usendi’s “dealing” with people in the area is “good” and he is considered a good bet this time.
These factors have led to a sea change in the political scene from 2018. Bastar is a region where BJP has traditionally not developed deep roots. In 2018, there was a sort of rebellion against the party and it was wiped out in these 20 seats with the exception of Raman Singh at Rajnandgaon and Bhima Mandavi in Dantewada. Mandavi was assassinated by Maoists barely six months after the elections in April 2019.
Now, BJP is making a comeback of sorts and is in the reckoning in a number of seats. But Congress, too, continues to hold the fort in many seats. Examples of the latter include Keshkal in Kondagaon district where the sitting MLA, Sant Ram Netam, remains in a comfortable position. Similarly, in Chitrakot, Congress is well-placed. Here, the party has fielded Deepak Baij, president of the Chhattisgarh Pradesh Congress Committee. Baij had won the last election as well but resigned in 2019 to contest the Lok Sabha polls from Bastar constituency. He is standing from Chitrakot once again.
When veteran Congress leader Arvind Netam quit the party in August this year, many reckoned that it was the end of his career. After all, what more could the octogenarian—whose career stretched back to the Indira Gandhi years—do in such a radically altered political scene? Within months of his resignation, it became apparent that if his outfit—HRP—could not win seats, it could certainly play a spoiler in many constituencies. The party now plans to contest 50-60 seats.
Netam represents Adivasi angst of a certain kind. In Bastar, one common allegation—made mostly by Adivasis—is that unless an Adivasi leader agrees to be ‘controlled’ by non-Adivasis who call the shots in business and politics, he or she is unlikely to go anywhere near success. It is the much-attenuated civil and democratic analogue of the militant cry ‘Jal, Jungal, Jameen’ or water, jungle and land only for Adivasis. The Sarva Adivasi Samaj, which Netam led, is a non-political, civil society outfit influential in Bastar. Its influence was visible in the bypoll to the Bhanupratappur constituency in Kanker district in December 2022. At that time, HRP’s Akbar Ram Korram, a retired IPS officer, came third behind Congress and BJP but managed to poll 16 per cent votes in the constituency. Such was the scare at that time that Congress had to dispatch stalwarts like Lakhma to Bhanupratappur to limit the damage. Now Korram is standing again in Bhanupratappur as HRP’s candidate. It is anyone’s guess whether he will win or not, but it is certain that he will eat away a chunk of the vote that would have otherwise gone to Congress, although both deny that. Adivasi political observers say their votes are for Adivasis only and political parties in their region are meant to serve their interests and not those of anyone else.
But matters are not that simple. While the ‘spoiler’ scenario is likely to be seen in many constituencies in the area, it is also unlikely to lead to a victory, let alone a decisive one, for Adivasi interests. Politics in Bastar has three criss-crossing poles. On one side is the rapid demand for development and services like healthcare and education, even in the remotest parts of this area. Ranged against this are Maoists who are waging a war against the government and say that any claim of development is misleading and all governments want to exploit the natural resources of Bastar. Between these poles are the actual voters of Bastar who are very keen observers of and participants in the political drama that unfolds every five years. This year will be no different.