Chhattisgarh: How Bastar Became 'BJP Mukt'

After winning the Chitrakote bypoll, the grand old party controls all 12 seats in the Maoist affected area.

New Delhi: After securing victory in the Chitrakote assembly bypoll of Chhattisgarh on Thursday, the Congress party state president Mohan Markam claimed that Bastar has become BJP mukt (free of BJP). There are a total of 12 assembly seats in the Adivasi concentrated Bastar division and winning the Chitrakote seat has ensured that all the assembly constituencies of the region have come under the Congress’s control. Bastar is also a Maoist affected area.

Though the Congress’s victory is not surprising, experts suggest that a formation such as this – of one party representing all the assembly seats of Bastar – has happened after a long time. Dantewada-based journalist Prabhat Singh expressed that while this victory may not be important in terms of needing to prove a majority, it will still be significant because of two reasons. The first is that the Congress losing the seat would have meant that the party is losing ground despite being in power. “It would have been a reflection on the performance of the state government. Also, this victory sends a message that Congress has completely captured the Bastar region,” Singh told The Wire.

Anil Mishra, news editor (Bastar division) of the local Hindi daily Nai Dunia agreed with Singh and said that retaining the Chitrakote seat, after having won the Dantewada by-election last month, is like regaining the grand old party’s lost base. According to Mishra, at one point of time, the Congress party used to bank on the Bastar region to form its government in the undivided Madhya Pradesh, as it used to have a substantial base there before the formation of Chhattisgarh.

In the Chitrakote assembly by-election (a reserved seat for Scheduled Tribes), Rajman Benjam of the Congress, a first-time candidate, defeated former BJP MLA Lacchuram Kashyap by a margin of 17,856 votes. In the last December 2018 assembly elections, the seat was won by the Congress’s sitting MLA Deepak Baij by defeating BJP’s Lachhuram Kashyap by 12,329 votes. However, in the Loksabha elections in April this year, Baij was elected from the Bastar parliamentary constituency. This was a big achievement for the party because the last time that a Congress candidate had won the Bastar Lok Sabha seat was in the 1991 general elections.

Congress and BJP party flags. Credit: PTI

Congress and BJP party flags. Photo: PTI

In the 2018 assembly elections, Congress had secured victory on 11 out of 12 seats in the region. The only seat it had lost was Dantewada. The seat was won by BJP’s Bhima Mandavi. However, due to Mandavi’s murder in a Maoist attack in April this year, a by-poll was necessitated. In the by-poll last month, BJP had fielded Mandvi’s wife Ojaswi Mandavi, who lost to Devti Karma, the wife of senior Congress leader Mahendra Karma, who was killed in the Jhiram Valley Maoist attack in 2013.

Chief minister Bhupesh Baghel has credited the victory to the pro-tribal policies and programmes of the Congress government in the State. “This victory is a stamp on the programmes adopted by our government,” he told mediapersons after the result was announced. Baghel also said, “This win is because of the direction of pro-tribal work by Sonia Gandhi and Rahul Gandhi… Party workers have proven that there is no substitute for hard work…”.

It can be noted that in June this year, Baghel had announced that the state government would be launching two new schemes for tribals in Bastar. According to a PTI report, the state government would provide nutritious food to forest-dwelling communities to combat malnutrition and as part of another scheme, the tribals would have access to mobile healthcare facilities in weekly markets. “Bastar region has the highest malnutrition level across Chhattisgarh. We have inherited this problem and are committed to completely eradicate it,” Baghel said. According to Singh, the mobile healthcare facilities in weekly markets has become functional.

“There is another reason why the Congress was able to consolidate its ground in Bastar”, Mishra told The Wire, adding that “it is the returning of the land to the tribals that had been acquired for iron ore mining.” In December last year, after coming to power, the Baghel government initiated the process of returning land acquired from Adivasis of Bastar for the Tata Steel Project in 2008. The Congress party in its manifesto had promised that all land acquired from farmers for industrial purposes, on which no projects had been started within five years of the date of acquisition, would be returned.

According to a recent news report by Business Standard, the returning of land was an important driving factor during the by-poll. “The issue of returning land to the tribals was one of the major factors in the by-poll and people, especially from the affected villages came out to vote in large numbers,” Rajendra Vajpayee, a political observer in Jagdalpur (Bastar) told the newspaper.

Experts also believe that the announcement of releasing innocent Adivasis has also helped in defeating the BJP. In February, the state government had constituted a committee headed by retired Supreme Court judge, Justice A.K. Patnaik to look into allegations of police atrocities and illegal detentions of Adivasis in the name of fighting Maoists.

Decrying the claim that Bastar has become BJP mukt, former minister and senior BJP leader Rajesh Munat said that this should not be seen as a rejection of the BJP. “The verdict might not be in the BJP’s favour but we have got the same number of votes as last time,” he told a local TV channel. Munat also alleged that the Congress party had used state machinery to secure the verdict in its favour.