Nov 14, 2018, 02.06 PM
Sporadic violence notwithstanding, a 70 per cent voter turnout, in phase one of the Chhattisgarh Assembly polls, has already squared the triangular electoral contest in favour of democracy.
Braving Maoist threats, the young and old, men and women, students and teachers, industrialists and farmers, the traders and the unemployed queued up since early morning at poll stations across the 18 Assembly segments, including 10 extremely sensitive areas in the restive Bastar region, which witnessed polling on Monday.
While political parties were quick to react to the poll statistics and used them as proof of their victory claims, those in the know opine that the high voter turnout is a result of confidence-building measures, employed in the run-up to the elections, and reflects the aspirations of people who have long borne the brunt of the nation’s war with Maoist extremism.
Left-wing extremists have a history of disrupting polls and the ongoing election season is no exception. Not long ago, the Sal-covered forests on the southern margins of the poll-bound state echoed with Maoist diktats, threatening to chop off hands and fingers of citizens participating in the elections.
Responding to the threat, security agencies placed a one-lakh-strong contingent, including central paramilitaries, and pressed IAF and BSF choppers into service to airlift poll officials to remote areas. As a precautionary measure, voting in 10 constituencies commenced at 7 am and concluded at 3 pm.
The first phase polls saw 187 candidates vie for 18 seats, including 12 in the Bastar division. The region, with a large tribal population, is widely regarded as a citadel of the Opposition Congress, which has been counting on anti-incumbency to bounce back to power after a gap of 15 years.
The Congress currently holds 12 of these 18 seats and poll pundits say that a success in the opening phase is of paramount importance for the Opposition if it is to stop Chief Minister, Raman Singh, from leading the ruling BJP to a fourth consecutive victory in the state.
Singh, an Ayurveda physician by profession, was also in the poll fray from Rajnandgaon where the nomination of his main opponent, Congress candidate Karuna Shukla, had come as a surprise to many. Shukla is a BJP stalwart and former Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee’s niece.
Interestingly, Shukla had joined the Congress months before the 2014 Lok Sabha elections and contested the Bilaspur parliamentary seat. Her campaign, however, failed to find resonance with voters in the BJP bastion and ended in a massive defeat.
Politics in Chhattisgarh has traditionally been centered around arch-rivals BJP and Congress and the presence of former chief minister Ajit Jogi-led Janata Congress Chhattisgarh (J) has added a fresh dimension to the ongoing two-phase contest.
Jogi, a former Congressman and first Chief Minister of the state, had pulled the proverbial rug from under a characteristically complacent Congress’ feet by forging a pre-poll alliance with the Bahujan Samaj Party and the CPI.
The move is seen as a huge setback for the Congress not just in Chhattisgarh and neighbouring Madhya Pradesh, but is also likely to impact alliance parleys between the grand old party and the BSP in the run-up to the Lok Sabha elections in 2019.
If the word on the street is to be believed, the Jogi manoeuvre is sure to add to the woes of the Congress, which is still struggling to find its feet since the bloody massacre of several of its frontline leaders, at the hands of Maoist insurgents, in the Darbha valley of Sukma district on May 25, 2013.
Salwa Judum founder, Mahendra Karma, was among those killed on that fateful day. His widow, Devti Karma is seeking a second consecutive term from Dantewada on a Congress ticket. Her son, Chhavindra, had sought the seat for himself and even filed his nomination as an SP candidate before withdrawing from the contest in favour of his mother.
Marring the polls, an improvised explosive device (IED) was detonated, by Maoists, minutes before polling could commence in Dantewada. IEDs were also recovered in Bijapur and Sukma districts. Five Commando Battalion for Resolute Action (COBRA) personnel sustained injuries and an equal number of Maoist rebels were killed in two separate incidents in Bijapur.
The fate of their candidates and challenges recorded and sealed in electronic voting machines (EVMs), political parties have returned to the campaign trail for the second phase polls for the remaining 72 seats in the 90-member state Assembly.
Security personnel will move on to new locations and challenges. Election candidates, over the next few weeks, will have little to do besides indulging in number crunching and clutching at straws.
Life in Chhattisgarh’s red zone, too, will return to its everyday pace and routine, but residents are bound to wonder if the brave but silent articulation of their democratic and development aspirations has been noted by those who matter and more importantly if their fragile optimism will translate into the change they deserve. Que sera sera.