Marwahi, Nov. 26: The road cuts a narrow swathe through the Achanakmarh reserve forest towards Marwahi, nearly 200 km from Bilaspur. Dense vegetation spills on to the path and sunrays filter in through the towering trees.
Just on the fringe of the forest, lies the scattered but neat tehsil town — chief minister Ajit Jogi’s pocket borough — nurtured with care for the last three years.
In true Congress tradition of turf building, it is another Chhindwara in the making, modelled on the lines of Kamal Nath’s picturesque constituency in Madhya Pradesh.
The semi-urban settlement is at the centre of all attention in state politics. The map of Chhattisgarh does not list Marwahi and the place was unheard of till three years ago. Now it is drawing visitors by the hordes and journalists from across the country.
Marwahi, a constituency reserved for Scheduled Tribes, is the battleground for two heavyweights — Jogi and leader of Opposition Nand Kumar Sai.
The contest would have been a straight fight had not the widow of a former tribal legislator managed a Nationalist Congress Party ticket from Vidya Charan Shukla.
At stake here is Jogi’s political identity as well as his rival’s because the chief minister’s doubtful ethnic origin has become an issue and the villagers are debating whether Sai, a tribal, is an outsider or one of their own.
The pitch has become slippery for both with the flowing tears of a widow, Hemvant Porte, who has come pleading for votes from her Gond brethren after 15 years.
Porte, a Congress deserter, is asking for votes in the name of her late husband Bhamar Singh Porte, who had retained the constituency for over two decades.
Jogi is leaving nothing to chance despite his supporters’ belief that he would easily retain the seat he won in 2000. His chief campaign manager here is his son Amit, a law student. Indifferent to politics till recently, Amit has formed a team of young party workers to do the rounds of the constituency.
Accompanied by his mother, Renu, Amit and his team are peddling Jogi’s sapna (dream) in the far-flung villages. “Marwahi Jogi ka ek sapna (Marwahi is one of Jogi’s dreams),” reads a huge archway as you enter the town.
“People often wonder why I have chosen Marwahi. For me, it is a return to my roots, to work among my own people and improve their lot, a dream I cherished since I became chief minister,” says Jogi.
Parts of his dream have been translated into reality. The road from Achanakmarh spanning three forest ranges is smooth and the ones linking Marwahi to the rest of the hinterland are almost a “miracle” in wilderness.
All the seven villages in and around the place have metalled roads and power.
“We never thought our homes would be lighted. Now, we even draw water with hand pumps and the harvest has been good this year,” says Man Singh, a young Gond tribal from Pandripad village in Kumhar panchayat on the outskirts of the town. A new power substation along the approach road to the constituency ensures round-the-clock supply.
The local primary health centre has been upgraded to a 30- bed hospital and the college has been affiliated to the Bilaspur University.
The war, however, is not one of sops but of “identity”. Jogi is being challenged on his turf by a BJP veteran, also a tribal. “Jaali jaati ke adivasi jaali sapna bhi dikhate hain (A man of doubtful tribal origin spins dubious dreams),” says Sai.
Both Sai and Jogi have set their sights on tribal votes. Porte, who is from the area, is also eyeing the tribals, especially the Gonds, who account for 60 per cent of the tribal electorate.
The constituency also has 15 per cent backward and Dalit voters, who are sharply polarised. Some backward voters are not favourably disposed to Jogi.
“We are not sure whether he is a tribal or a Dalit,” says Sunderlal Rajak, a voter in Chanadungri village. Rajak and his neighbours will probably root for Sai.