How the New Village Power Structure in Chhattisgarh Influences Voters

Come election season, a coterie of village-level functionaries become 'contractors' for political parties in Chattisgarh. For the right price, they will regulate the discourse and even corral residents to show up for public meetings and political speeches.

Kokadi (Raipur, Chhattisgarh): Less than a hundred kilometres from Chhattisgarh’s capital, a firman has been issued in Kokadi, a village of less than 2,000 people. All residents have to attend the Govardhan Puja a day after Diwali. Everything else now takes a back seat for the villagers. Attendance is compulsory and assigned functions have to be performed. No one goes to work – either as hired labour or in her own ripened paddy field. Any transgression by an individual or family is at the cost of being ostracised by the rest of the community.

What does this have to do with elections in Chhattisgarh?

Everything, a village-level political pundit explains. The post-diwali firman is a litmus test for a technique devised and refined over the past few election seasons. There are umpteen number of government schemes, such as free rice, free cycles, old age pensions, crop insurance, MGNREGA and Rs 1.5 lakh per person for housing. This is largely controlled by the village panchayat and its secretary. The beneficiaries identified at the ground level by this coterie are the ones who eventually get the money in their bank/Jan Dhan accounts.

No one in the village wants to rub them the wrong way, which has given rise to a lobby in each village that now effectively controls the discourse. It appears stronger than the caste panchayats, though in some cases it may be difficult to differentiate between them. Now, extend this to whom the village elders want the votes to be directed to and it become apparent how the power system, once developed by the Congress, has resurfaced in a different form. The Congress worked through an archaic Mughal-British feudal hierarchy of landlords and strongmen; however, presently the system is operated by those who are in a position to dispense government schemes at the bottom of the ladder.

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Rukmani, 45, who works as a farm labourer and doubles as an anganwadi cook, says she has never disobeyed any firman – whether for religious functions or attending a village meeting. It keeps her peers happy and she has her name in almost all beneficiary lists. She does not want to risk losing her small privileges and certainly not over the “insignificant issue of whom to vote for”. Whoever comes to power in Raipur is likely to retain and even add to all the freebies, but her life will always be directly controlled by the lobby in her village.

The ingenuity and effectiveness of the system was put to test when BJP president Amit Shah visited the district headquarters in Gariyaband on November 10. His chopper landed at the police lines but the local candidate and sitting MLA Santosh Upadhyay failed to muster enough crowds for him. His eleventh hour reprieve came when he saw hordes of women walking in to listen to Shah. Party workers had contacted the right people in the villages around Gariyaband – including Kokadi – and brought in women, perhaps on daily wages of Rs 200 per head.

The point is, the power lobby in each village will deliver when required even for a public meeting, and it decides who gets the daily wage money amongst its own flock. This lobby in each panchayat/local body has effectively become a contractor for those looking to employ them. The beauty of the new power structure is that anyone from any party can make use of it, as long as the price is right. While in most cases the ruling BJP benefits from this set up, it isn’t immutable.

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Of the 20,000 villages and nearly 9,500 panchayat members, nearly 50% are Congress backed and independents. The lobbies are open to other offers and are not bound by party guidelines. That being said, for convenience sake panchayat and janpad members may align with the ruling party for the easy release of funds. Consequently, election results are always down to the wire in Chhattisgarh – with hardly five lakh votes separating the two main parties. Of the more than one crore votes cast in the last elections, the vote differential between the two main parties was a mere 0.75%.

Is all this a result of the power structure at the bottom of the pyramid?

While that may not be the case, what may explain it is how the system has evolved and become entrenched over the past ten years – where the list of freebies has grown from rice to horses. The state has an annual budget layout of Rs 80,000 crore and revenues in the region of Rs 40,000 crore, mostly from mining, power and excise. The rest is made up of centrally-sponsored schemes and central share in GST. All that money is being ploughed back into populist welfare schemes, which has given rise to this new mafia-like structure at the bottom.