An increase in poll percentage figures in the recently-concluded first phase of Chhattisgarh Assembly election in the Maoist-hit districts is astonishing, considering the escalation in Maoist violence in the region in the run up to the elections.
Given the attacks by Naxals on government machinery and civilians in Bastar just days before the region went to polls, including a day before the arrival of Prime Minister Narendra Modi for poll campaigning in Jagdalpur on 9 November, the stage was set for an election that was not likely to see the electorate coming out to cast their votes.
After all, the Maoists had issued a crystal-clear call to boycott polls, along with a gruesome threat of chopping the hands of people found sporting the indelible poll ink on their fingers.
But the electorate dared, and how!
A total of 18 Assembly seats in the region comprising Bastar and Rajnandgaon that went to polls in the first phase of elections in Chhattisgarh on 12 November clocked 76.28 percent, almost as if throwing caution to the wind, or as one could say, showing faith in democracy even in the face of dire consequences.
The figure may seem to be a small increase over the last election’s 75.60 percent, but given the circumstances and aggressive posturing of the Maoists, where they continued with their attacks even on the day of polling, it’s commendable on part of tribal voters who risked their lives to cast votes.
Barring a few pockets in Maoist strongholds, where the Maoists forcefully vacated the villages and shifted the villagers to their areas, the villagers went out to cast their votes in the rest of the region.
The figures for voter turnout in 2013 and 2008 elections were 75.60 percent and 67.08 percent respectively.
"Chhattisgarh recorded 76.28 percent polling in the first phase of elections held on Monday... The impressive turnout shows that Naxals’ threats seem to have had little impact in the first phase of polling in eight Maoist-hit districts,” state Chief Electoral Officer Subrat Sahoo said in a press conference at Raipur.
Polling in the heart of Maoist strongholds
Let’s consider three Assembly constituencies where the Maoists have strong influence.
Narayanpur has registered 74.40 percent of polling this time in comparison to 70.28 percent in 2013. This district includes Abujhmad — a large swathe of hills and dense forests, with tribal villages scattered in small pockets – where the police and security forces are yet to penetrate. This region is considered as an impenetrable Maoist fortress, where they run a ‘state within a state’ of their own known as ‘janatana sarkar’.
Bijapur has clocked 47.35 percent in comparison to 45.01 percent in 2013. A Maoist stronghold, Bijapur is one of the most volatile districts. Last month, Maoists blew up a mine protected vehicle (MPV) in Bijapur using a landmine that killed four CRPF personnel. Almost every week, one gets to hear about Maoist attacks in this district.
Konta Assembly seat in Sukma district has witnessed a sharp increase of 7 percent in voter turnout. It has registered 55.30 percent as against 48.36 percent in 2013. One of the most volatile Maoist-hit districts, Sukma has witnessed some of the most gruesome Maoist incidents.
Factors that pushed tribals to cast votes despite Maoist threat
In a bid to combat Left Wing Extremism, the Narendra Modi government has adopted a multi-pronged approach, which includes aggressive security measures, development, confidence-building exercise, etc. Similarly, several factors have helped in increasing the poll percentage in Bastar region.
1. Community policing
In Bastar region, community policing – which is known by various names like 'Amcho Bastar, Amcho Police (My Bastar, My Police)' in Bastar district, 'Manva Puna Bijapur (Our New Bijapur)' in Bijapur or ‘Tendumutla Bastar’ in Sukma district – has played a pivotal role in building confidence among villagers to cast their vote.
“We’ve been working on community policing for the last one-and-half years. The objective is to have regular dialogues between villagers and police by taking the former in confidence, to know about the problems, give feedback to government and lend a helping hand. We wanted to say that villagers can trust the police now. This has helped voters from interior areas to come out and vote. It’s a kind of bonhomie between the two,” Chhattisgarh police inspector general (Bastar Range) Vivekananda told Firstpost.
There are villages like Palamedu or Mukram in Sukma where people had desisted from voting in the past, but have cast votes in considerable numbers. Villagers from Barsur even crossed the Indravati river to cast their votes.
“There was zero percent voting in Mukram in 2013. Out of two polling booths in Maoist stronghold Bhejji— a single vote was cast in one booth and none in the other. But this time, villagers willingly came and voted. Despite Naxal violence, the district administration has tried to provide a safe and secure environment. Even a few polling booths were shifted for security reasons,” a Sukma district official, who was involved in the poll process, remarked.
2. Strong security measures
Over 1.25 lakh police and paramilitary personnel were deployed in the 18 Assembly constituencies that voted in the first phase. The security forces used drones and surveillance devices like trackers to monitor each and every movement in the region.
In addition, the war room at Special Investigation Branch of the Anti-Naxal Operations wing of Chhattisgarh police maintains a round-the-clock monitoring system for the entire state. The first phase of this election has witnessed a foolproof security arrangement, ensuring better safety to voters. As a result, despite repeated death threats by the Maoists, the villagers came out in large numbers.
Respective district administrations along with security forces ensured physically challenged voters reached the poll booths. The women self-help groups also played a vital role in mobilising women voters in villages.
The rural roads which were built in the last three years connecting interior villages also helped villagers in their movement.
“As we’ve got a road now in the village, this time, I used motorbike to carry my parents and wife to the polling booth,” said Nandu Markam, a resident of Geedam.
The government officials feel that the roads will give long-term benefits to the locals.
“It’s not just about voting, the roads constructed in the last five years have helped villagers in many ways – from fast access to hospitals and maternity centres, to wholesale markets. Moreover, these roads have helped security forces penetrate Maoist strongholds. The role of roads can’t be undermined at any cost, as it has added to the government’s other developmental activities,” Vivekananda said.
4. Ajit Jogi factor
The political observers in Bastar also see the new alliance of former chief minister Ajit Jogi’s Janata Congress Chhattisgarh with Mayawati’s BSP and Communist Party of India (CPI) as one of the factors that led to a high voter turnout.
“The new alliance has a good influence in Bastar due to Ajit Jogi and CPI. The latter fielded a strong candidate, Nandram Sori (CPI), from Dantewada, who enjoys a good base among villagers,” said RK Bhatnagar, a Bastar-based analyst.
5. A rumour
There is a strong rumour doing the rounds that two days ahead of the polling, the Maoists asked villagers “not to vote for a particular political party” but vote for another “particular party”.
The veracity of the rumour couldn’t be confirmed.
“We’re not ready to buy it. Had it been the case, the Maoists would have issued this diktat much earlier rather than giving poll-boycott calls,” added Vivekananda.
Can the development narrative make a difference in the second phase?
In this election, roads and development in Maoist-hotbed Bastar were a big poll plank for the Chhattisgarh government to showcase.
Exuding confidence after the first phase of polling, Chhattisgarh chief minister Raman Singh reportedly said, “We’ll get good results in the first phase in comparison to 2013. We’re hopeful of getting 14 out of the total 18 seats.”
In 2013 Assembly election, the Opposition Congress bagged 12 seats out of 18, and in Bastar region, it won eight out of 12.
Now, it needs to be seen how accurate Raman Singh’s claim will be and how his government’s development narrative can swing the second and last phase of Chhattisgarh election (on 20 November) in BJP’s favour.
“There’s no doubt lots of work has been done by the government on construction of roads and in education sector in Bastar and it would have a positive impact. But there have been charges of corruption as well in development projects. On one hand, development has taken place. On the other, there’s a stark economic disparity visible in Chhattisgarh. It needs to be seen how this development narrative plays its role in the concluding phase,” remarked veteran journalist and political analyst Ramesh Nayyar.
Updated Date: Nov 14, 2018 17:01 PM