The Telegraph
Since 1st March, 1999
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If you are in either Madhya Pradesh or Chhattisgarh on the eve of the state polls this year, it will be difficult to escape the slanging match that is going on. It had begun long before the names of the poll candidates were selected. In fact, even before the poll date was announced, the chief minister, Ajit Jogi, had got embroiled in a schoolbag distribution scandal. When the chief minister went to file his nomination papers, the Bharatiya Janata Party raked up the decade-old controversy surrounding the allegedly forged birth certificate of Jogi. And now, the CD recordings of the BJP chief ministerial candidate, Dilip Singh Judeo, taking money, followed by his hasty resignation, have completely diverted public attention from the more real issues in Chhattisgarh.

One would get an entirely different perspective of the state if one were to visit a village tucked away in the Bastar district — Budhiyarmari in the Muragaon gram panchayat area. The poverty and alienation of the tribals had already shown up shocking images in 1998. Take another village, Pahad Chattan, which has rich deposits of bauxite under its forest cover. You might come upon tribals, unaffected by the shrill political rhetoric, lost in watching a cock-fight. Taking a break from his campaign, Congress candidate Mahendra Karma, an ebullient tribal leader of Bastar, asks, “Do you think this is a metaphor for a poll battle for them'” In Bastar, Karma has launched a crusade against Naxalites, who he calls merchants of death.

The scene at Budhiyarmari is similar. Villagers’ nerves are on the edge now because of hectic mining operations for a joint project involving the Chhattisgarh Mining Development Corporation which involves the felling of hundreds of trees. There is growing hysteria among the local tribals over the loss of forest and forest produce. “Our streams and other water bodies are getting clogged and polluted. At least 21 tribal families are on the road because mining operations forced them to leave home”, says Faguram Sodi, a middle-aged local associated with a local voluntary group. According to Sodi, unlike in the past when tribals used to be submissive and obedient to their village chiefs, they have now learnt to ask for their rights. Sodi says, “We are no longer even terrified by the armed Naxalites. We are asking them questions too.”

As campaigns for the first ever assembly polls in Chhattisgarh get underway, what is causing worry to the state’s residents is whether the polls would install a politically revitalized leadership. This leadership has to implement audacious economic reforms and resolve the paradox of poverty in the midst of plenty in Chhattisgarh. But leaders in Chhattisgarh seem to be taken over by a mutual hate campaign.

Considered the rice bowl of central India, Chhattisgarh is almost as mineral-rich as Jharkhand with a diamond mine spread over 18,000 square metre in in Deobhog near Raipur, a sprawling iron mine at Bailadilah and Rawghat in Bastar, Bauxite mine at Kanker and huge coal deposits at the Bilaspur-Raigarh region which has already attracted steel plants. The Geological Survey of India’s recent excavations have even indicated gold deposits.

The tribal leadership in the state did not grow out of a popular movement in the state. The statehood movement, primarily spearheaded by the Congress, did not climax in a violent agitation as in Jharkhand. Congress veterans like Chandulal Chandrakar had already reached a compromise with the Congress high command with respect to this territory of Madhya Pradesh with a predominance of tribal and backward votes that created an awesome Congress base. The BJP however gradually gained a foothold from the Nineties in this region, as so did other minor parties.

Left politicians and socialists had already begun to orchestrate the theme of poverty in the land of plenty. The subject soon became a theme for the campaigns of parties of all hues. During his election campaign in 1998 at Raigarh, Jogi, who was facing the electorate for the first time, had said, “Sampanna ke sinhasan par bhukha adivasi baitha hai”(Hungry tribals are sitting on the throne of affluence).

However, when he became chief minister in 2000, Jogi began to deviate from his own political script. He repositioned his political ideology by muting his anti-privatization rhetoric on mining which he had exploited during the Deobhog-lease controversy. His politics seems to have been aimed more at establishing his own identity rather than that of the state. Sandwiched amidst multiple Congress factions, he had to consolidate his position in whatever way he could.

Jogi, however, used his skills as a former Indian administrative services officer to push through administrative reforms. He abolished the post of commissioner for Bilaspur, Raipur, Bastar, withdrew the state-run transport department to allow private investors to run the bus services. The idea was to reduce administrative costs by 38 per cent. Like Arjun Singh, a leader who had inducted him into politics, Jogi has put together a team of experts in the field of education and economy. However, tribal culture and tradition had got little boost or promotion. Jogi’s avowed goal to reduce poverty has also hit a snag as he got busy in defending himself against aspersions and counter-aspersion. The BJP, on the other hand, seems to believe that elections are won chiefly because most people vote against the incumbent.

The party thus chose to project Dilip Singh Judeo, scion of the Jashpur royal family, as its chief ministerial candidate. An architect of Operation Gharwapsi, a campaign launched in the mid-Nineties to bring home tribals who had strayed into Christianity, Judeo and his party had little to add to the economic policy being pursued by Jogi. The opposition therefore targeted Jogi’s alleged misdeeds, corruption and struck a stridenly anti-Christian note to polarize Hindu tribals against Christians. The campaign, however, seems to have ended in a disaster since Judeo himself has got mired in a pay-off scandal. His exit from Union ministry left the BJP campaign in a mess.

The battlelines in Chhattisgarh have been drawn between Jogi’s secular liberalism and the BJP’s aggressive Hindutva. Thrown in between are the Nationalist Congress Party leaders like V.C. Shukla. There are also the Bahujan Samaj Party and local outfits like Gondwana Gantantra Party of Hira Sing Markam and Chhattisgarh Mukti Morcha of Shankar Guha Niyogi, who was assassinated in 1991. While Shukla, a former Union minister, appears to be a spent force, no one underestimates his ability to manoeuvre the situation and consolidate his grip on a section of the urban Brahmin votes. But Arvind Netam, also a former Union minister who quit the Congress and joined the BSP, had lost two of the constituencies in which he was fielded by the BSP in the last poll.

Despite the BJP’s effort to turn the Chhattisgarh battle into a “Ram versus Rome” war, political parties have to contend with the backward caste voters in the plains and the tribal voters of the hills. Of the 25 per cent backward caste voters, the bottom half comprises agriculture labour, small landlords and poor peasants. This section will vote for the BSP, the GGP and the CMM.The middle peasantry, consisting of the Kurmis, the Sahues and the Gopes, who originally formed the Congress vote bank, has given way to the BJP. If in spite of so many contenders, the Congress gets an edge over the BJP with the help of friendly parties like the BSP, the GGP and the CMM, the rest may be taken care of by the tribal voters of Bastar, Kanker, Surguja, Ambikapur and Pathalgaon. For in the tribal heartland, the BJP has failed to make a dent despite having Nandkumar Sai, a Gond tribal leader who was president of the BJP in 1997-98. Under Arjun Singh as chief minister, the Congress assiduously nurtured the tribal vote bank and nurtured a section of tribal leaders like Mankuram Sodi and Jhumuklal Bhedia.

For Faguram Sodi, the tribal volunteer worker in Kanker, despite his loyalty to the Congress, he cannot stop feeling that the party has been taking the tribals for granted. Otherwise, why should the poor tribals run away into the forest fearing attacks when the campaigners reach Palobeda in remote Abujmarh of Bastar, he asks. Why would only about 20 of the 140 voters cast their votes in Palobeda' Why, Sodi asks, should the Khaiwar and Kondar tribals of Surguja have to grapple with starvation even now'

Sodi has an answer to all these questions, although politicians might be unwilling to accept it. According to him, Chhattisgarh continues to be in this state because no one wants power to actually shift to the tribals. Not even the tribal leaders who get “easily urbanized and mired in scandals”. But are Ajit Jogi and Nand Kumar Sai willing to listen to him'

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