On or before the 7th of every month, almost 90 per cent of both rural as well as urban households of Chhattisgarh receive 35 kilogram rice, wheat, and salt and two kilogram pulses at a heavily discounted price, delivered virtually to their doorsteps. This is the Public Distribution System (PDS) revolution that Raman Singh has brought about in this tribal State. While, 40 to 60 per cent of all food grains meant for the PDS end up in open markets in the rest of India due to huge leakages, almost 96 per cent of food grains reach the end consumer in Chhattisgarh. This miracle has been brought about by decentralising both the procurement as well as distribution of food grains because ration shops have been liberated from the clutches of the greedy neighbourhood Lala and have been handed over to self-help groups (especially consisting of women).
No other Chief Minister in Indian history has achieved such a nirvana by plugging the leaks in PDS so successfully for such a length of time as Singh – it has been effective almost since 2008. Even in the heavily Maoist affected southern parts of the State, the two achievements of the BJP Government that standout are – a leakage-free PDS and top-notch schools. Enter any school in this region and you will momentarily forget that you are in the heart of Maoist-affected badlands of central India, for these schools can easily compete with the best in the rest of India. If the leakage free food program of the state government teaches a lesson to the Left, then the world-class schooling system is a study of the Right in contrast. It is this amalgamation of the best of the Left and the Right that tells the monumental success story of BJP in the tribal heartland.
What was started by the RSS under the aegis of Ramakant Keshav Deshpande and the royal patronage of the Judeos of Jashpur is today transforming the landscape of this backward State. The schools run by the Vanvasi Kalyan Ashram in tandem with the State Government form the lifeline of tribal education system. This huge network of single teacher schools in the tribal region has also provided the backbone for the BJP to prosper, especially in the southern part.
Southern Chhattisgarh constituting 18 Assembly seats would be the first part to go to polls among all five States in a busy election calendar this winter. These 18 seats, mainly from the Maoists affected Bastar division and Rajnandgaon, could well hold the key for India’s future. This tribal region known as the gateway to power of this small State, for no party can occupy the ‘Raipur Gaddi’ without winning Bastar, which was once a Congress stronghold and has been a BJP bastion for more than a decade now, so much so that BJP won 15 of the 18 seats in 2008. In fact, Congress has never tasted success in 12 of the 18 seats since the formation of Chhattisgarh.
It is here that the conventional political logic goes haywire, for the Congress, which is supposed to be the messiah of tribal, economically backward and needy people, has consistently lost its base in what is possibly the biggest bastions of tribal. On the other hand, the BJP, which is supposed to be a purely urban party – mostly true even in its core State of Gujarat, where Congress still holds sway only in the tribal seats – is now at its strongest in the rural, tribal and Maoist territory. Of the 18 seats that go to polls on November 11 and 14 are reserved seats and the BJP had won 12 of them in 2008, which shows the utter domination of the saffron party here. Indeed, it is this domination of the BJP of Maoist territory that helped Raman Singh retain power in the last elections, for the Congress and the BJP were equal in the rest of the State by winning 35 seats each – Bastar was the crucial differentiating factor.
It is in this background that the Maoist-Bastar attacks of May 25 this year must be seen, for the entire non-Jogi Congress leadership was wiped out in a matter of few hours. Conventionally, such a tragic event should have provided the Congress with a great sympathy wave in the Bastar division, but Chhattisgarh is a graveyard of conventional political logic. In fact, Congress leaders are not even raising this issue in an election year!
In Bastar, false sympathy cannot win you an election, for truth is not dependent on compromised newsmen. Even if Delhi news studios never talked about Ajit Jogi or Kawasi Lakhma and their alleged role in the Maoist attack of May 25, everybody here knows about it. This is an area where close to 40 per cent of the polling booths fall under the control of Maoists, so everybody knows the truth in its rawest form. For instance, Devati Karma, the wife of the slain Salwa Judum proponent, Mahindra Karma, is contesting on a Congress ticket in Dantewada, but she can hardly go out to even campaign. Over 100 polling booths out of 266 in Dantewada are such that no political parties would be able to nominate their agents to look after the proceedings on November 11, where is the question of Karma garnering sympathy? For all his bluster and post-death greatness, Mahindra Karma himself had not only lost the 2008 election, but had ended up finishing third.
The elimination of almost the entire Congress leadership by the Maoist attack has not generated the requisite sympathy among the voters for the party, moreover, it has rendered Congress vulnerable due to leadership vacuum at the top. In 2013, the lack of the likes of Nandkumar Patel and Mahindra Karma can potentially dent the chances of the Congress allover. What is also worrying for the Congress is almost a terminal decline of popularity of Ajit Jogi, their tallest leader in the State. In an increasingly presidential style electoral scenario of today, Congress starts with an obvious disadvantage over the BJP.
Maoists hold sway over this region, let there be no doubt about that. What is interesting though is that BJP and Sangh cadre have developed a working relationship with a section of these extreme-Left fringe groups which has helped the BJP’s cause in Bastar. Congress has tried hard to break this symbiotic relationship but hasn’t met with requisite success so far, although there is a sense of nervousness in the air this time around, among the saffron brigade. “Large industrial and power projects have displaced many tribal over the years and Maobadis are getting increasingly restive about their own long-term relevance”, says Ramesh, a political analyst with Sangh leanings. “The entire Maoist structure might become inconsequential by 2017 (provided BJP gets another term)”, he goes on to add. If there are any last moment dictums from the Maoists against the ruling BJP, then the equations can alter drastically not only in Bastar and Chhattisgarh but also impacting the national picture significantly.
The biggest worry for the BJP in Chhattisgarh today is the micro-anti-incumbency at the local level against a large number of sitting MLAs. This has been one of the failures of the party and the leadership, for they have been unable to deny tickets to many sitting MLAs – for instance, only four out of the 15 sitting MLAs have not been re-nominated for the first phase poll, whereas the original plan was to deny tickets to nine of them. The latest CSDS pre-poll survey suggests that the BJP has a seven per cent advantage over the Congress in seats that it holds, which is almost double the lead as compared to Congress held seats. This is one of the problem areas on why the CSDS projections of a BJP sweep in Chhattisgarh should be taken with a pinch of salt, for its findings are contrary to all the ground reports of local anti-incumbencies.
Combined with the imponderable Maoist-swing and the micro-anti-incumbency is a third X-factor of local rebellions, which is a feature that cuts across party lines. For instance, Forest Minister Vikram Usendi, who had won merely by 109 votes in 2008 is facing a strong rebel candidate in the form of Somnath Uike in Antagarh. Similarly, in Khujji, the BJP has nominated a new face in the form of Vijay Sahu, whereas three time MLA, Rajinder Pal Singh Bhatia is contesting as a rebel who might upset the applecart. Even those who have withdrawn their candidatures are unlikely to work for the party’s official candidates. For example, Jamuna Manjhi, the panchayat leader whose husband, a senior RSS functionary, was murdered by Maoists, has large number of followers in Konta but has now rebelled against the official BJP candidate Dhaniram Barse and can decide the fate of Kawasi Lakhma of Congress (who already has the tacit support of Maoists).
On the other hand, the Congress too has at least half a dozen prominent rebels mainly spread around Chitrakoot, Kondagaon, Khairagarh and Bijapur. The problem though is that the BJP has much higher stakes in this region as it has to defend 15 out of 18 seats and even minor dents can make a big difference to the final picture.
The fourth and final X factor is of course, Narendra Modi. For the foreseeable future, Modi will remain an X factor in all Indian election as he has this huge following among the masses cutting across caste barriers. Even in this Maoist-affected, largely backward and remote districts of Chhattisgarh, Modi is an electoral factor (in fact, there are quite a few anecdotal evidences of many Maoist sympathisers supporting a backward caste leader as the PM of India). Exactly what percentage of voters in this tribal heartland would vote for Modi is a difficult data-point to address – conservative estimates from various political analysts in Chhattisgarh put a number anywhere between 5 to 15 per cent of the total vote as the NaMo vote.
That is a significant advantage that BJP has in a keenly contested phase 1 of Chhattisgarh election.