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November 23, 1998


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BJP promises to create Chhattisgarh in three months

Archana Masih and Vaihayasi P Daniel in Bhopal

For the Chhattisgarh region in eastern Madhya Pradesh, the assembly election spells the most confident measure towards statehood so far. With both the Bharatiya Janata Party and Congress expressing a firm commitment towards granting the region statehood, Chhattisgarh remains a decisive factor this election.

"All the formalities of the Bill for a separate Chhattisgarh state have been completed. It will be passed in the next Parliament session," says BJP state campaign convener Lakhiram Agarwal. A former state BJP president -- whose son is the party candidate from Raipur -- Agarwal believes the Congress has done nothing towards granting the region statehood. After being in power for so many years, he says, the Congress only included Chhattisgarh in its manifesto in 1993.

"The BJP not only included it in its 1993 state manifesto, but our national agenda also includes the statehood of Chhattisgarh," says Agarwal.

With a 45 to 50 per cent scheduled caste and scheduled tribe population, the region has 11 Lok Sabha constituencies and 90 of the state's 320 assembly seats. A traditional Congress area of influence, the BJP started making parliamentary gains in the area in the 1996 general election. It won 6 seats in 1996 and 7 in 1998. The Congress won 4 seats in 1998.

Of the 90 -- 46 General; 34 ST; 10 SC -- seats in the present assembly, the Congress has 54 MLAs and the BJP 29. The new Chhattisgarh state will include the parliamentary constituencies of Bastar, Bilaspur, Durg, Janjgir, Kanker, Mahasamund, Raipur, Rajgarh, Rajnandgaon, Sarangarh and Suguja.

"When the Congress was complacent about its position, the BJP was making a concerted effort to build a base. There is also an increasing sense of fatigue with the Congress party," reveals a former IAS officer.

The criticism levelled against the Congress by the Opposition is that in 45 years, successive Congress governments at the Centre have failed to improve the social and infrastructural requirements of the region.

Larger than 16 states of the Indian Union, some parts of Chhattisgarh are considered the most inaccessible in the country. "Literacy in the region is lower than other parts of MP. It has a wealth of natural resources -- coal, granite, diamond, rivers, 24 per cent of the area is covered with forests -- yet hundreds of thousands of people leave their homes in search of livelihood outside," continues Agarwal, himself a native of Kharsia in Chhattisgarh.

In the run-up to this election, the BJP has driven home the point that it was during its government's tenure at the Centre that the long overdue Bilaspur Railway Zone become a reality. Party workers believe since the inauguration was done by the prime minister, people in the region will realise that the party is serious about its commitment to Chhattisgarh.

"For 20 years there has been a demand for a high court bench in Raipur. Even though a commission was set up to look into the matter, nothing came of it. After 40 years of neglect, people of Chhattisgarh now believe that no progress is possible unless a separate state is carved," adds the senior BJP official.

The Congress, on the other hand, reiterates it has always maintained unflinching support for Chhattisgarh. "As early as 1924, at the Tripura AICC session, the Congress made its first attempt towards a separate Chhattisgarh state. It was at a meeting in the Raipur Library Hall that a formal resolution for a separate state was passed," says Congress secretary and MP campaign convener Ramesh Chennithala. "Page 30 of the 1993 Congress manifesto clearly mentions that we would form a separate state, but because the party has not been in power at the Centre since, we have not been able to implement it," he continues.

Although many agree that the first attempt towards Chhattisgarh was made by Chandulal Chandarkar, a Congress Rajya Sabha MP, BJP officials believe the party did not pay much attention. "He was an OBC, a party dominated by upper castes like Shyama Charan Shukla, Motilal Vora and Arjun Singh would scarcely listen to him," says BJP spokesperson Prabhat Jha.

BJP leaders maintain that while its fledgling government at the Centre has already accepted a proposal for constructing seven National Highways in the region, the Congress has been consistently slack on the issues of health, education, infrastructure and development.

A premise that M N Buch, chairman of the National Centre for Human Settlements & Environment, only partially agrees with. Basing his claim on the fact that infrastructure is a major handicap in MP, and Chhattisgarh could not be taken as an isolated example, Buch is of the view that a state which only has three major railway networks through the western and central parts of the state, and air links only to Delhi/Bombay from Bhopal/Indore/Gwalior fell far below its infrastructural requirements.

While the BJP is trying hard to make political gains in the region, the Congress is suspicious about its attempts. Says Chennithala: "You must not forget that Digvijay Singh called a special session of the assembly to pass the Chhattisgarh bill in the House, and sent it to the central government. Why couldn't Vajpayee call a special session of Parliament and passed the Chhattisgarh Bill?"

Criticised for having dragged its feet on the Chhattisgarh issue after coming to power at the Centre, the BJP is believed to have delayed the process in the wake of the assembly election for poll gains. 'Atalji ne diya Chhattisgarh ka upahaar, aap unko de sarkar.(Atalji has given you the gift of Chhattisgarh, you help him form a stronger government), goes one BJP slogan.

Some observers feel that in the event the party fails to win MP, Chhattisgarh could get stalled further. But, after having made it into a major election issue, a reversal could affect the gains made by the party since 1996. While the party expects to win 52 assembly seats, the Congress hopes to increase its tally beyond 60.

"We must not forget that the BJP had once opposed the formation of a separate Chhattisgarh," says L S Hardenia, chairman, MP National Integration Committee. "What is the need for a separate state? Like Nagpur is an important hub for Maharashtra, Raipur could be one in the Chhattisgarh area. The country requires large states -- they provide stability," says Hardenia who holds a rank equal to that of a state minister.

Meanwhile, without disclosing the party's choice for chief minister in the region, Agarwal clarifies that granting statehood was a Constitutional process, which could not be done quickly. "It took Digvijay Singh five years to carve a few districts in the state, why then such an uproar when if we take eight months to carve a state?" Once in power, he claims the BJP will grant Chhattisgarh statehood in three months.

Assembly Election '98

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