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November 23, 1998


'Chhattisgarhis are poor people. We think of dal, chaval, not politics'

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Chindu Sreedharan

When you are given enough cash, bundled into a decent vehicle in Raipur and ordered to drive to Bastar and to see what's up with the polls there, you are left with no option but go.

So you recline your seat, put your feet up as high as they go, and breeze off. The driver, despite his rustic looks, is quite efficient. Better still, he can actually drive.

You relax completely. It is noon, but the breeze is darned refreshing. You get down to serious business -- namely, looking out through half-closed eyes and counting the motorbikes and other vehicles you overtake.

Raipur (urban) is ugly and crowded, where little girls flit by on not-so-little motorbikes and traffic flows on both sides both ways, where cut-outs of BJP MLA Brijmohan Aggarwal glare at those of Congressman Paras Chopra.

On comes Raipur (rural). Unlike its sister, devoid of much poll paraphernalia, the locals are minding their own business (chewing pan, sitting around on shop verandahs etc). Here, the BJP's Tarun Chatterjee, the sitting MLA, takes on Congress foe Deenanath Sharma.

"Rural is a sure BJP constituency," seems to be the general opinion. Good for Chatterjee, you say, all the best to him.

Now the vehicle is on the highway. Paddy fields on both sides, bundles of payara, the stalks of what remains after the grain is removed, eats into the road. There are bullock carts and tractors. You have entered the real Chhattisgarh the real 'rice bowl' of Madhya Pradesh. Men, women and teenagers are in the fields, all of them sun-blackened, all busy with the harvest.

A little ahead the farmers are stuffing bundles of payara onto red tractors, piling them higher and higher till the vehicle looks like a yellow mound on wheels.

It takes a few minutes to convince them that what you need to know is about the election, not bad crops. They give you the eye as if you are slightly off your rocker. Why would anyone be interested in what they call the neta log do? We move on.

The district is Dhamatri, the constituency, Kurdh. In the fray are Ajay Chandrakar of the BJP and the Congress' Deepa Sahu.

"Who'll you vote for? Chandrakar or Sahu?"

"BJP ko vote karega," comes the answer in that sing-song tone that characterises rural folk all over India.

Why? Because... well, because they have been voting for the BJP for long!

Dande Sare village is the next stop. Stretched along the sides of the highway, it is what a Bombayite socialite could call 'sooo cuute!' Small. Population about 2,000. And the paanwallah here is definite about the BJP's chances.

Further down, it's the Dhamatri segment. The driver, who by now is exhibiting clear signs of journalistic talent, is testing it out on unsuspecting folk. He stops the vehicles by the side of a field. He calls a farmer over and turns journalist. Who will win? The Congress? BJP? Why?

The village is Teissa Poori. The farmer's name is Sukhdev. He says the Congress will come up trumps.


Sukhdev looks stumped. Why is this chap asking such stupid questions?

"Because," the youth finally manages, "they are the only people whom we see here."

What about the allegations of corruption against the Congress? Weren't they aware that five Congress ministers were in the dock? Now Sukhdev is stumped.

"Maloom nahi hai," he says, "We do not know anything about that. But the Congress is good."

You try another line of questioning. Who's the Congress candidate?

"Woh maloom nahi hai," Sukhdev isn't at all apologetic, "I vote for the panja (the hand)."

As Sukhdev prepares to escape, you bring up Chhattisgarh. Does he think that the state would become a reality? Would it be beneficial for the Chhattisgarhis.

The reply are those most irritating words: Maloom nahi hai,

A little more coaxing, assisted by the driver's bullying, and the youth condescend to add, "Usme hamko takleef kuch nahi hai."

An older passer-by is more responsive. The Congress will win, pakka. As for Chhattisgarh, he wouldn't be able to say whether it would come into being or not. In any case, what difference would it make to farmers like him?

"We people have no interest in it," he pronounces, "It doesn't mean anything to us."

You move on, passing bridges, railway crossings, more bullock carts, tractors, farms and farmers. You chance upon Chabbilal Sahu, a carpenter busy with his work, and drag him away from it. He asserts the Congress will win here.

You throw the issue of the corruption charges against him and again draw a blank. Contrary to what the BJP claims, no one outside Raipur seems to know about the allegations. Some have read about it, yes, but that happened in "Bhopal", far, far away. What does it have to do with Chhattisgarhis? And why should it affect their preference for the panja?

"BJP tho abhi chilla rahe hai Chhattisgarh rajya banega," the carpenter, meanwhile, is saying.

"I think they will. Chhattisgarhis are all for it. For all the things that we need to go to Bhopal, we will only have to go to Raipur now."

So the decision makes the BJP more popular with the people? Sahu isn't sure about that.

You thank him and start off again. You have gradually reached a conclusion: Many, probably the majority, of Chhattisgarhis are on autopilot. It doesn't matter to them who the candidates are. It doesn't even matter if the entire government is charged with corruption, or the price of onions is Rs 100 a kilo. All that the folks look at is the party -- whether it is the BJP or Congress. They know who they voted for in the last election, and who their fathers voted for in their time -- and they continue to punch for that party. Period.

That, possibly, is why many like Sukhdev doesn't even know the name of the candidates. They haven't bothered to find out really, and the parties, knowing this mentality, haven't bothered to let them know. And this hardly hundred kilometres from Raipur, mind you.

"Chhattisgarhis are poor people," the driver says as you approach Dhamatri town, the district headquarters. "We think of dal, chaval, not politics."

Dhamatri is small, seemingly in a straight line. The highway cuts through its heart. Its formation, recently, by a chief ministerial order is nothing but a political gimmick. One fine morning, soon after Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee announced a separate Chhattisgarh, Digvijay Singh plucked it away from its mother Raipur, propped it up with promises of grants, and christened it a 'district'.

And so a new district was born overnight. With no other changes than that an IAS officer was ordered down to the town to be a collector. There is no collectorate, so Manoj Goel sits in a ramshackle building in Ludri.

The demand for separate districts had been pending for a long time. The logic was that it was impossible to efficiently administer huge districts like Raipur, Bastar etc. So, along with Dhamatri, Digvijay Singh went ahead and fathered eight more zillas in the last few months.

On the campaign trail in Chhattisgarh, continued

Assembly Election '98

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