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Electoral slugfest in Naxal heartland

Anand Mishra | November 13, 2008 12:10 IST

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Named after a form of the Goddess Kali--Danteshwari--and now a hotbed of naxalism, the Scheduled Tribe constituency of Dantewada goes to the polls on Friday amid the killing of several political workers and strident voices both in favour of and against the anti-Maoist Salwa Judum movement.
A place of religious significance, earlier the shrine of Danteshwari was visited by devotees who came from far-flung areas, but their numbers have dipped as incidents of naxal violence in Dantewada rose sharply in last decade.
Politicians still pay obeisance at the shrine during elections but it is naxalism which dominates electioneering here.
The constituency is the battleground of the Congress leader and Leader of Opposition in Chhattisgarh, Mahendra Karma, who faces a tough fight from Manish Kunjam of the Communist Party of India.
Karma, known for being at the forefront of the Salwa Judum movement, has won the seat three times -- two times consecutively on Congress ticket in 1998 in undivided Madhya Pradesh [Images] and in 2003 in the first assembly elections of Chhattisgarh state and once on a CPI ticket in 1980.
Kunjam, a two-time loser from Konta assembly segment, is is giving Karma a tough fight this time. Kunjam is banking on his support in rural areas, where he is popular because of  his movements against the Salwa Judum and giving farm land to industries.
On his part, Karma, has been anti-naxal,in  his political meetings and strongly supported the Salwa Judum and announced that his contest is neither with the CPI nor with the Bharatiya Janata Party but against the naxals.

                                                        Naxal threat shadows poll-bound Chhattisgarh

Karma, a Madia tribal himself led the tribe's movement against naxals that began from Bijapur and extended it to Dantewada after 2005.
The opposition leader's biggest strength is his solid base among the non-tribals in Dantewada.
Despite coming from a tribal community, Karma had strongly opposed the Sixth Schedule issue in 1992-93. Non-tribals viewed it against them and have been a staunch supporter of Karma since then.
However, it is learnt that the naxals holding sway in dozens of villages in the interiors are also determined to see that Karma does not win the election. Through leaflets and press releases, the Maoists have criticised Karma although they have said they do not support any political party or candidate.
In the last assembly election Karma defeated the CPI candidate Nanda Ram Sori by a margin of 4,935 votes. This time the CPI has been able to campaign even in Maoist strongholds where neither the Congress nor BJP could enter.
Kunjam also expects to get votes of National Mineral [Get Quote] Development Corporation workers at Balaidila as workers unions are supporting him.
BJP candidate Bhima Mandavi is banking on Chief Minister Raman Singh's image, the cheap rice scheme and the party platform. The cheap rice programme is especially popular among women.

The naxal influence can be clearly felt in the constituency. The Geedam police station in Dantewada is surrounded by barbed wire, a sign of the threat to the police. During election time, the fear is all the more pronounced. The station was attacked and looted during the last assembly elections. The Maoists also carried out the biggest jailbreak in the country in Dantewada last year in which 200 odd inmates, mostly Maoists, had escaped.
In an unique feature, female voters number is more than male voters in the constituency. There are 89 thousand 531 female voters as against 83 thousand 997 male voters in this ST reserved constituency.
An interesting contest is on the cards in the segment. A shopkeeper in Dantewada's biggest village Karli, Vimal Kumar Pawar, says "Its Congress versus BJP here. Rice is an issue here. But the CPI has its support in Balaidila and Kiran Durg. Both Karma and Mandavi are locals hailing form Pareshpal and Gadapal villages respectively, while Kunjam hails from Konta. Hence he faces outsider charge from both the rival candidates," said the shopkeeper.

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