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September 22, 1999


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The Rediff Election Special/ Archana Masih

Congress confident of halting BJP advance in Chhattisgarh

With 11 of the state's 40 Lok Sabha seats and bigger than 16 states of the Indian Union, Chhattisgarh remains decisive in the political equation of Madhya Pradesh. In a majority of past general elections, the party bagging the maximum chunk of seats in this region has won most of the other constituencies in India's biggest state.

"We are expecting seven seats in Chhattisgarh," says Pradesh Congress general secretary and party spokesman Manak Agarwal, "Our candidates are very strong this time and we hope to capitalise on the infighting in the Bharatiya Janata Party."

The Congress won four seats -- Janjgir, Raigarh, Rajnandgaon and Sarangarh -- in the region in the 1998 general election. The BJP won the other 7 Lok Sabha seats.

Comprising the parliamentary constituencies of Bastar, Bilaspur, Durg, Janjgir, Kanker Mahasamund, Raigarh, Raipur, Rajnandgaon, Sarangarh, and Sarguja, the region has traditionally been a Congress stronghold.

With a 45 to 50 per cent tribal and backward population -- that translates into four reserved scheduled tribe seats and two scheduled caste seats -- it was only in the post-Emergency election of 1977 that the region shunned the Congress and was swept by the Janata Party. "Indiraji's image is still intact with the tribal people. This has been the main reason for them voting for the Congress," continues Agarwal.

Like other tribal areas in the country, Chhattisgarh dutifully voted for the Congress till 1989 when the BJP started making gains in the region. The party won six seats, the Congress three in the election that brought V P Singh to power.

Political observers maintain the Congress started losing ground in the region because it had done little to improve the infrastructural and social requirements of the people. Rural literacy is just 36 per cent and the mineral rich region has not been exploited for its people's benefit.

"It is true that Chhattisgarh was a Congress bastion," says Lakhiram Agarwal, who is in charge of the BJP campaign and a native of Kharsia in Chhattisgarh. "It was easy for them to influence the simple minds of the natives and win them as their loyal supporters, but we worked hard to find our foothold here."

Tracing the region's political history, Agarwal reveals that the royal descendants and zamindars of the area were Congress supporters. "Only the raja of Jaspur was with us and we started from scratch. Between 1952 and 1957, the BJP had two, three workers in each kasba. Today there are a minimum of five workers in every village in the region," he says.

Yet, the BJP's hopes took a rude blow after the results of last November's assembly election. Nine months after winning 7 of Chhattisgarh's 11 Lok Sabha seats, the party could only muster 36 of the 90 assembly seats in the area. The Congress got 45 and attributed its performance largely to its commitment towards the formation of a separate Chhattisgarh state.

Since then both the BJP and Congress have played a game of one-upmanship on the statehood issue. As both parties accuse each other for delaying the process, a separate state remains an issue in the Lok Sabha election this time as well.

"The BJP was not serious at all," Chief Minister Digvijay Singh told, "They had the opportunity. They had the time. In fact we had gone to the extent of saying the state should have come into being before the last Vidhan Sabha election so that we could have separate elections in Chhattisgarh also."

However, the BJP leadership vehemently denies that its government at the Centre dragged its feet on the issue. The prime minister himself maintains 'the delay in the formation of a separate Chhattisgarh state was due to the ousting of his government through Congress machinations.'

Vajpayee and state BJP leaders are of the view that their government had taken a decision at the Cabinet level to bring an act in Parliament after the passing of the Union Budget. However, even before the Budget could be passed, the BJP government was voted out

"If the Lok Sabha had been allowed to progress Chhattisgarh would have been through," says Agarwal.

Rich in mineral resources like coal, dolomite, granite -- it also has the Devbhog diamond mines -- Chhattisgarh is also called the wheat bowl of the region. With 24 per cent of its area covered by forests, it is a naturally prosperous region. Yet, many believe that both the BJP and Congress are not serious about a new state. Neither are the region's people. "Unlike Vananchal and Uttaranchal, there is no concerted effort visible among the people of the region," adds a Bhopal journalist.

"I cannot imagine why Digvijay Singh himself would fancy presiding over a truncated state. For that matter, no top leaders would like to lose the chance of ruling over a large state like MP," says a political observer. With the power centres of both parties vying for a piece of the pie in state politics or at the Centre, it is understood that only the second rung of leadership is keen for a separate state. They scarcely expect the political bigwigs of their state to make way for them.

Meanwhile, there was much acrimony between veteran leader Vidya Charan Shukla and Digvijay Singh when the former was denied a ticket from Mahasamund. Apparently V C Shukla -- a four time winner from Mahasamund -- lost his candidature to older brother and former chief minister Shyama Charan Shukla because VC was defeated by Ramesh Bais of the BJP in Raipur last year.

The constituency, which has elected a Congress candidate eight of the 11 times it has gone to the polls, was won by Chandrashekhar Sahu of the BJP for the first time in the last election. With seven time MLA and presently a legislator from the Rajim assembly segment of Mahasamund, S C Shukla in the fray -- who is contesting his maiden Lok Sabha election -- the Congress hopes to wrest this seat back from the BJP.

The V C Shukla episode had also given way to speculation that the chief minister was trying to keep the Shukla brothers in check. That it was also VC's pro-Chhattisgarh stance that cost him his seat. However, Digvijay Singh denies this allegation. "No, this is not correct," comes his cryptic response.

Since 1962 when VC won his first parliamentary election, the Shukla brothers have been the most powerful leaders from the region. Till a few years back, VC recommended candidates from the region to the central leadership. Now in their 70s and the state Congress leadership firmly in the grasp of a younger group of politicians, the Shuklas have been relegated to the echelons of also-rans. Certain observers believe the creation of Chhattisgarh is imperative if the Shuklas want to regain their lost stature.

"In the past the Shukla brothers were against the creation of Chhattisgarh," adds Lakhiram Agarwal, "VC has just started talking about it, while SC -- well, he has been rambling. He now wants parts of Orissa included in Chhattisgarh."

The BJP maintains that both parties have a 30 to 32 per cent committed vote bank in the region. Party insiders also reveal that Bastar and Rajnandgaon are their weak areas. Bastar was won by Baliram Kashyap of the BJP for the first time in 1998. He is now pitted against Mahendra Karma of the Congress.

Featuring on the People's War Group hit list, Karma won as an Independent -- when he was denied a Congress ticket -- in 1996. He was defeated by the BJP's Sohan Potai from Kanker in 1998. "Bastar is the best contest in this election," says BJP spokesman Prabhat Jha.

Rajnandgaon, also a Naxalite affected constituency, has Congress veteran and former chief minister Motilal Vora contesting the election against Dr Raman Singh of the BJP. Vora won the 1998 poll by 52,241 votes. BJP insiders feel the Congress has a better chance in these two constituencies because of 'fielding strong netas.' Says Manak Agarwal frankly: "We have kept caste in mind while distributing tickets this time. We hope to make some gains because of that."

Although the BJP appointed Nand Kumar Sai -- a two time MP from Raigarh -- as the state party president, both parties have been accused of thwarting tribal leaders.

Arvind Netam -- a four time MP from Kanker - left the Congress in 1998 and joined the BSP. It is widely believed that Netam, one of the most powerful tribal leaders, switched parties in the hope of better political opportunity. However, disillusioned even with the BSP, Netam has now returned to the Congress. His wife Chhabila contested and won Kanker in 1996 when he was denied a ticket under the hawala shadow. Chhabila Netam is once again in the fray against last time's winner Sohan Potai of the BJP.

"Both the BJP and Congress have kept the tribal leadership at the second rung," adds a political observer. It is further felt that years of brahminical leadership has not allowed the tribal and backward classes to flourish. A primary reason which alienated them from the Congress and swung them the BJP way. However, the Congress is of the view that disillusioned even by the BJP, this vote bank is returning to its fold.

"Yes, we did lose the the SC, ST and minority vote," says Manak Agarwal, "To some extent I do agree that not much effort was made by us."

The BJP, meanwhile, believes the Congress will not be able to strengthen its position in Chhattisgarh because of fielding fewer backward candidates. A prominent party insider also reveals that to woo voters, the Congress in the past disbursed "bonuses" just in time for the election. Congress workers also entertained tribals with alcohol and beef before polling.

While the BJP hopes to maintain its position in Chhattisgarh, the Congress is buoyant about wresting some seats from its rival. The Congress draws most of its confidence from the premise that Chhattisgarh is one region in Madhya Pradesh that remains its stronghold.

Sarangarh, won by veteran Parasram Bhardwaj six times consecutively, has never elected a BJP candidate. The party has won not less than five times in each of the 11 constituencies and eight of its 18 seats in the last two elections have come from this region.

As eight of the Chhattisgarh seats go to the polls on September 25, the BJP and Congress keep their fingers crossed for this eastern bastion.


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