Raipur: Clouds loom across paddy fields in various stages of maturity. As farmers busy themselves in reaping, Chhattisgarh’s bruised Bastar region is flush with colours of the election.
Banners and flags in bright shades of orange, blue, green and white hang from mud houses and trees, amidst great tracts of farmed land. The Bastar region, with 12 seats, goes to election today, November 7 along with eight other constituencies in two other districts.
In 2018, Congress had won 11 out of the 12 seats, and had reclaimed the lost seat in the by-polls necessitated after the election due to the death of Bharatiya Janata Party leader and winner Bheema Mandavi. After 15 years in power, the BJP had lost the entire region, with people simmering against the party’s leaders and politics. The tribal vote had counted the highest in the anti-BJP sentiment, with issues like violence against tribals in the garb of anti-Maoist strategy and heavy fortification of the region using security camps among other discrimination taking centrestage.
Despite the advantage, the ruling Congress has had to change their candidates in five out of the 12 seats.
The Congress has fielded Chhavindra Karma, son of present MLA Devati Karma from Dantewada constituency. In Dantewada, Devati Karma became the MLA after Bheema Mandavi’s death in 2018.
In 2023, the BJP gave their ticket to Chaitram Atami, a resident of Hirenar, known among the rural population as “one of them”. Atami was a prominent Judum leader (leader of Salwa Judum, a people’s militia movement against Maoists started by late Mahendra Karma) with several threats from the Maoists to his credit.
“Before the Congress declared their candidate, we all believed Atami would win. But, now with Chhavindra contesting the election, it will be a tough fight,” a villager from Gidam tehsil said. In Dantewada, Chhavindra Karma has the advantage of various factors working in his favour, including sympathy of being a Karma family scion who is taking his late father’s legacy forward.
Kondagaon, where the Congress had won with a mere margin of 1,796 votes in 2018, is going to be a tough battlefield for both the major parties. The competition is between Congress MLA Mohan Markam, the ex-Pradesh Congress chief, and BJP national vice president Lata Usendi. With tough tribal sentiments against Markam, his seat is stuck in a neck-to-neck competition, much like the last time.
In Antagarh, the Congress had won in 2018 with a margin of 13,414 votes. However, the Congress chose a new candidate, angering the existing MLA, Anoop Nag, who has decided to contest election independently. “The party chose some random survey over their own workers’ hard work. They will realise their mistake in the next few weeks,” he said.
Across Bastar, the Congress is also seeing strong anti-tribal sentiments. “The tribals had trusted Congress. We were fooled on every step. The Congress government brought in a diluted PESA [Panchayats (Extension to Scheduled Areas) Act] law, made tribal politics obsolete in the OBC wave and helmed decisions that were similar to the BJP when it came to dealing with maoists. Innocent tribals are still being prosecuted, they are still languishing in jail. The Congress disappointed the tribals just like the BJP,” a Sarva Adiwasi Samaj official said, requesting anonymity.
The Sarva Adiwasi Samaj has launched a “Hamar Raj” party, who have launched candidates across all the Scheduled Tribe seats in the state. “We hope our candidates win. But even otherwise, we will surely damage the vote count for the parties,” he said.
The most interesting election in the Bastar region, however, is being fought in Sukma, one of the still red districts in the red corridor.
In Sukma district’s Konta, the Congress candidate Kawasi Lakhma is facing stiff opposition from his constituency. The cabinet minister has had to face severe criticism in Konta over the government’s handling of various protests, including Silger, which lasted for more than a year. On May 17, 2021, four tribals were shot dead by security forces after they opened fire on a protesting mob. The mob of residents from nearby villages were protesting against a security camp. While police maintained that the protests were on the behest of Maoists, the locals protested on the site of conflict in huge numbers.
In the run-up to the election, the prominent candidate from Sukma was Manish Kunjam, an ex-MLA from CPI. While his rallies were drawing many people he had alleged that the district machinery had been trying to stop him from visiting villages, citing “security reasons”. “Why are there so many camps if they can’t provide me enough security to meet the villagers, like common men? It is a planned mission of the MLA along with district officials, to stop me reaching parts of my constituency where people are full of anger against him,” he had said.
Kunjam, however, faced the first fall after his party symbol was changed from the CPI’s well known hammer and sickle to an air conditioner. The symbol was allotted to him after the party realised that they had forgotten to fill in some pre-election paperwork. “We are still fighting on my name and my outreach. We have faith in the public’s judgement, we will win,” he said.
In Konta, the BJP has fielded another Judum face, Soyam Muka, who has a good rapport with tribal sub-groups in the region. The BJP candidate has spent considerable time in attending the various kalash yatras and havans organised by various groups in the suburban region of Sukma. Interestingly, the Sarva Adiwasi Samaj in Sukma has been continuously resisting attempts at Hinduisation, by refusing to participate in the state wide Ramkatha tournament amongst other steps.
“In Bastar, the government schemes are not as pertinent as they are in the plains. While competition is neck to neck in seats like Bijapur, Jagdalpur; some seats have a lot of anger for the Congress party like Chitrakot and Narayanpur. The tribal votes as well as Christian votes will not benefit the Congress as it did the last time. But they’re not keen on BJP either. Some votes will get diverted, but a lot of this election will be choosing the lesser of two evils for many constituencies,” a political functionary said, requesting anonymity.