In Chhattisgarh's Rajnandgaon district, 80-year-old Baghela Yadav cast his vote in Kutheri village on 12 November, which was the first phase of elections for the state's Assembly. He has voted in every election that has taken place in the past, however, when asked, "Aapne kin muddo ke adhaar par vote kiya hai (On the basis of which issues have you voted)?", he responds with a blank look.
Surrounded by his neighbours, all of whom have gathered for a cup of tea in the village square after voting in Chief Minister Raman Singh’s constituency, Yadav sheepishly admits that he had intended to select the first 'button' on the electronic voting machine (EVM), but got flustered and accidentally voted for the last name in the list of candidates. The group erupts with laughter.
Ramakanth Banjare, a social worker and one of the conveners of the Chhattisgarh Bachao Andolan, puts this situation into perspective. "Most people of the older generation in rural areas don’t really think about whom they want to vote for. There is a lack of awareness about the broader implications of this process; many people vote for whomever they feel like at the time, or get swayed by pre-poll promises, or vote just for the sake of voting."
Sixty-one-year-old Udayram Sahu's opinion supports Banjare's explanation. "All the parties make various promises before the elections, based on which, people change their choice all the time. For instance, right until I select a candidate's logo on the EVM, my decision about whom to vote for isn't fixed," he says.
Ruhela Sahu, 72, says that he has voted based on "what other people told him" about the parties' manifestos and campaigns, whereas Dhaneram Khare of Pendri village, voted for the Congress because it is a family tradition to vote for the panja (the Congress party’s symbol).
"My father has always voted for the party, so our entire family does too. I don’t know why," he says.
The situation is further complicated by illiteracy and a general apathy of political parties towards small villages like Kutheri and Pendri. Only three voters among the people this reporter spoke to in three villages had read the manifestos of both major parties — the Congress and BJP, with just about half of the people having voted based on their campaigns. The Congress released its manifesto for the Chhattisgarh elections on 9 November, whereas the ruling BJP released its manifesto on 10 November, barely a day before the elections.
"The BJP’s delay in releasing the manifesto could be because people are angry about unfulfilled promises from the 2013 election. Maybe the party didn't want to be cornered with questions about the promise of the Rs 2,100 minimum support price (MSP) on rice that has so far reached only Rs 1,750 per quintal," Banjare explains.
However, this has not deterred people from voting for either parties — regardless whether it was an informed choice or not. The first group of voters for the first phase, who met in Kutheri, comprised of women farmers who burst into a cacophony of complaints when asked about the election and the polling process. Pratima Meshram is the loudest voice among them.
"I have voted for a change in government. One of the most important issues the women are talking about is the delay in implementing the prohibition on alcohol. Alcohol urgently needs to stop being sold, to curb the increasing cases of domestic violence," says Meshram, adding, "It's time to give someone else a chance. I have also voted based on the promise of a complete loan waiver for farmers." Additionally, the women express concern about the condition of healthcare and education in their village.
Satrupani Nishad says the block's government hospital turns people away with the excuse that there are no medicines, or delays treatment by forcing people to make appointments repeatedly. "Whoever wins the election ultimately doesn’t matter to us. We just want our issues addressed," Nishad adds. The BJP government's trump card, evident from conversations with people supporting the BJP, has been one of the 2013 pre-poll promises that has been fulfilled — providing a kilogram of rice for just Re one.
An agricultural labourer in Pendri, Chunni Sahu says, "Under the Ajit Jogi government, we got rice at around Rs seven per kilogram, and now we get it for a rupee. My family doesn’t own land, so we are happy with getting food to eat."
Along with this, the ruling government's development-driven policies that have pushed for the construction of roads, public health centres, and government schools at the village-level have drawn support for the party which has been in power in the state for the past three terms or 15 years. "Apart from taking action for the long-term development of the state, the government also distributed mobile phones and cycles in most parts of the state as a part of their campaign," says Namdev Nirmalkar, in Kutheri village.
However, the farmer community's contention with the state administration has steadily been becoming louder, especially in the run-up to the election. Across Bastar, Kanker, and Rajnandgaon districts, farmers are struggling with inadequate MSP on paddy, non-payment of the promised bonus of Rs 300 per quintal and of the amount assured as crop insurance.
This disillusionment is evident when even big farmers who benefit from 'development' of an urban nature, say that they are unhappy with the government.
Shahdev Ram, 55, who owns 10 acres in Somni village says, "It’s not just me who is unhappy with this government, it's the whole community. There has been development, our village has good roads and facilities; but when it has come to agricultural concerns, farmers have been let down by inadequate MSP and incomplete payment of bonus."
The farmers suspect that the latest payment of the bonus has also only been due to the onset of the election season. The younger generation, especially those from farming families, have double the worry. With most of the district’s youth population unemployed, even with a minimum of Class 12-level education, they feel that even if “Dr Raman” wins the Rajnandgaon Assembly seat, the party is likely to lose the state.
Dhaneshwar Jangde, 24, who has acquired a degree in civil engineering from a local college, says that he has hope from the Ajit Jogi-Mamata Banerjee-CPI alliance. “In my opinion, the chief minister might win the seat, but the sentiment of anti-incumbency has taken concrete shape,” he explains.
In their home in Somni, Danik Banjare and her daughters Namrata and Vandana who are both first-time voters, discuss the other parties as alternatives. They remain non-committal towards any particular one, but emphasise that they have voted for a party other than the ruling party with the hope that any change in government would be beneficial.
“I had voted for the BJP based on their manifesto in 2013, but I am disappointed by their governance. We had to protest and fight for the bonus of 2015. The administration didn’t release it themselves, although it was their promise, Danik says.
She adds, “We are only asking the government to fulfill their promises, not for anything extra.”
18 constituencies went to polls on 12 November, of which six are a part of the Rajnandgaon district. The Rajnandgaon constituency seat is currently held by Raman Singh, against whom the Congress fielded Karuna Shukla, former prime minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee’s niece. Shukla has also been a member of the BJP.
The remaining 72 constituencies are scheduled to vote on 20 November. The results will be declared on 11 December.
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Updated Date: Nov 13, 2018 14:02:08 IST