New Delhi: The polling season kicked off Monday with the first phase of assembly elections in Chhattisgarh. Twelve of the 18 constituencies that went to polls are in the Bastar region – where the underground group, the Communist Party of India (Maoist) has a large presence and had called for an election boycott. The remaining six are in Rajnandgaon district.
The first of the two-phased state election saw 70% voter turnout. In 2013, these 18 seats had seen a voting percentage of 76%.
Polling for the rest 72 seats will take place on November 20. Chhattisgarh, with a substantial area influenced by left-wing extremism, is the only state where assembly elections are being conducted in two phases.
The run-up to the polls in Adivasi-dominated Bastar saw an intense war of words between Prime Minister Narendra Modi and the Congress president Rahul Gandhi. Implying that the Congress members were in cahoots with the Maoists, he said that the grand old party has always issued statements to protect “urban Maoists”.
On the other hand, Gandhi trained his guns at the Centre and the Raman Singh-led BJP government in the state for diluting laws like PESA and Forest Rights Act that protect a tribe’s rights over forest resources. He alleged that this was being done to benefit the corporates who were interested in cornering the massive mineral wealth of Chhattisgarh.
As the two national parties fought each other, the Maoists, too, upped their attacks on security personnel who were on election duty. Five CoBRA personnel were reportedly injured in two encounters with the Naxals in Bijapur district today. The skirmish took place at separate spots at a forest in Pamed, around 500 km from Raipur. The Commando Battalion for Resolute Action (CoBRA) – an elite unit of the Central Reserve Police Force (CRPF) – was patrolling the area in view of the voting going on in the region, a senior police officer said.
A day before the polls, the All India Congress Committee member P.L Punia, who is the poll in-charge of the state, created a flutter by accusing the state government of planning a “massive rigging”. However, The Wire could not confirm the veracity of the claim.
BJP in desperation has decided to #MurderDemocracy. Senior bureaucrats leak information of massive planned rigging of all remote booths in Bastar through govt machinery.@INCIndia @INCChhattisgarh @RahulGandhi @rssurjewala @IndianExpress
— P L Punia (@plpunia) November 11, 2018
According to an NDTV report, polling in ten constituencies with Maoist presence – Narayanpur, Dantewada, Bijapur, Konta, Mohla-Manpur, Antagarh, Bhanupratappur, Kanker, Keshkal and Kondagaon – started at 7 am and ended at 3 pm because of security concerns. The rest of the seats saw polling till 5 pm, as is the norm.
The central Indian state has traditionally witnessed a direct contest between the BJP and the Congress – both parties only marginally different in terms of their support. In 2013, BJP surged ahead of the Congress by only 0.75% votes, which, however, gave the saffron party a clear majority in the 90-member assembly.
In 2018, a third force has emerged. Former Congress chief minister Ajit Jogi who floated his own party by the name of Janata Congress (Chhattisgarh) has allied with the Bahujan Samaj Party and the Communist Party of India (CPI). This has complicated the political equations in the state, with at least one opinion poll predicting that the alliance may get around 15% votes.
Also read: The Ever-Changing Gears of Ajit Jogi
Which of the two main parties the alliance will harm more will, however, be clear only once the results come out on December 11.
Out of the 18 constituencies that went to polls, 13 are reserved, including one for the scheduled caste. Three-time chief minister Raman Singh’s fate will also be sealed in the first phase. He is contesting the Rajnandgaon seat, which he has held multiple times, against the niece of former prime minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee, Karuna Shukla, who is contesting as a Congress candidate.
The Konta seat – where Maoist presence is high – also saw a fierce contest between the CPI leader and former MLA Manish Kunjam and sitting Congress legislator Kawasi Lakhma.
In 2013, the BJP had won ten of the 18 seats while the Congress had eight. The Congress is hoping to improve its tally from this sensitive zone.
The violent run-up
A marginal dip was seen in voters turnout in the sensitive constituencies of Bastar region – Dantewada, Bastar, Jagdalpur, Konta, and Chitrakut. In Dantewada, this year, only 49% voters turned up, as against the 62.03% recorded in 2013’s assembly elections. Only two weeks ago, a Doordarshan News cameraperson along with three district reserve guards were killed in an ambush laid down by the Naxals in Dantewada’s Nilawaya village.
Several villages had announced a complete boycott of the election process. However, the election commission says, although, in a few numbers, people still turned up. Like in Nilawaya village, 17 persons turned up to vote, similarly in other sensitive polling booths like Jabeli, Muler, and Burgam, 11, 10 and 7 persons respectively turned up.
These voters, the officials claim, turned up amid heavy security fearing a backlash from the Naxals. Around 1.25 lakh police and paramilitary personnel were posted across the 18 constituencies.
Early morning, minutes before the election process were to start, an improvised explosive device (IED) was detonated in Dantewada district allegedly set up by the Naxals. Security personnel also recovered IEDs near a polling station in Bijapur and in Sukma district.
Five personnel of Commando Battalion for Resolute Action (CoBRA) were reportedly injured and five Naxals were killed in two separate encounters at Bijapur district’s Pamed area.
In the run-up to elections, the attacks on the police and civilians had intensified. Naxals had also put out posters and graffiti on the walls of schools and other administrative buildings across Bastar, demanding complete defiance of the elections.