Treasure Chest

What Chhattisgarh’s political factions are fighting for

Chhattisgarh’s mines are tangential to the decisive conflicts of caste and community ahead of the state elections, but are deeply coveted by its political players. RUPAK DE CHOWDHURI / REUTERS
01 November, 2013

SUCH IS THE ASSOCIATION OF CHHATTISGARH with forests overrun by Maoist guerillas that even the scant woods outside Raipur airport can fill first-time visitors with foreboding. But if you live outside the arena of the Maoist conflict in the south of the state, and away from the rising cloud of coal mining in the north, there is a strong chance you feel life here has improved over the last decade. The state of your public hospital may not have improved, but there is a free ambulance to take you there. The fields may remain rain-fed, but whatever rice you grow is bought by the government at rising prices. The state gave paddy farmers a bonus of Rs 270 per quintal this year—the highest in India. Most significantly, the ration shop reliably supplies 35 kilograms of cheap rice to each card holder—an entitlement under the state’s food security act, the first and only such state legislation in India, which predates the centre’s act and exceeds it on many counts. If you pluck beedi leaves for the government’s minor forest produce federation, you may be among the one million recipients of a free pair of shoes under the charan paduka yojana. The saraswati cycle yojana may have given your daughter a bicycle to ride to high school and the mukhya mantri teerth yatra yojana might have held out the hope of your old parents fulfilling their long-cherished dream of a pilgrimage.

The Maoist conflict and the mining juggernaut dominate the national view of the state, but in the assembly polls in November, both will actually be cast in minor roles, geographically limited as they are to the forests and hills in the north and south. The real political theatre is playing out in the central plains—over caste, community, candidates, the inner intrigues of political parties and their public campaigns focused on governance. On that last count, the ruling BJP, with its umbrella of welfare schemes, has an edge.

Thirteen years ago, along with Jharkhand, Chhattisgarh was created by the NDA regime under the rubric of empowering adivasis, who formed nearly one-third of its population. But the adivasi identity was fractured—and remains so—between communities and across geography. The state’s creation had more to do with careful arithmetic within the BJP. In the 1990s, the party had begun to do well in the areas that constitute Chhattisgarh. Once limited to the upper castes, it had started actively fielding OBC candidates, expanding its appeal among the numerically large middle castes of Sahus and Kurmis. It had made inroads in adivasi areas, riding on the work of Hindutva organisations. The most influential of these was the Vanvasi Kalyan Ashram based in Jashpur in the north, where Dilip Singh Judeo, an erstwhile royal who joined the BJP, washed the feet of adivasis in a movement called ghar wapsi, or ‘return to the fold’.

The BJP leaders believed a smaller, compact state was more winnable, and subsequent years proved them right. Ten years of BJP rule have given Chhattisgarh stability and a measure of good governance, even as its neighbour Jharkhand remains a political wasteland. A third consecutive victory for the BJP in Chhattisgarh would be seen as a vote for Chief Minister Raman Singh’s aggressive welfare initiatives. Economists may dismiss them as populist handouts, but social activists commend them—the food security act in particular—as important safety nets in a state with the highest poverty ratio and the lowest rural per capita expenditure in India.

A BJP victory would also mean that the Congress defeated itself for the third time in a row. In 2000, when Chhattisgarh was carved out of Madhya Pradesh, the Congress formed its first government. Overlooking the regional satraps, Sonia Gandhi dispatched her close aide and former bureaucrat Ajit Jogi to take charge as chief minister. Against his party rivals VC Shukla and Motilal Vora, both Brahmins, Jogi used as leverage his identity as a Kanwar adivasi. But the veracity of his caste certificate was challenged and is still being adjudicated by the courts. In popular perception, Jogi’s family belonged to the large Dalit community of Satnamis, which won him the community’s support. But Jogi had no friends among the party’s top rung and it took him no time to make enemies. His colleagues still speak in private of being traumatised by his autocratic style and terrorised by his brash young son, Amit Jogi. A student of law, Amit showed no regard for it, wielding a power over the police and bureaucracy that invited comparisons with Sanjay Gandhi and, in the process, united warring Congress factions against his father.

As Ajit Jogi told me in 2011, “The Congress has two camps—AJ versus ABJ—Ajit Jogi versus Anybody But Jogi.” Congressmen admit they fought each other more than the BJP in 2003 and 2008. For a while, it had seemed the 2013 polls would be different. Nand Kumar Patel, a mild-mannered leader with an ability to cultivate friends across party factions, was appointed the state president in 2011. For two years, he worked assiduously to broker peace within the party. That he had come far was evident in May this year when he led the party’s Parivartan Yatra with every major leader in attendance—a rare unity that perished with him.

Within hours of the Maoist attack in May that killed Patel and 26 others, old fault lines in the Congress reopened and whispers broke out that Jogi had conspired with the Maoists to get Patel killed. A week later, Charan Das Mahant, an OBC leader loyal to Digvijaya Singh, the former chief minister of Madhya Pradesh and the thorn in Jogi’s side, was appointed the acting state president. If Jogi had influence with Sonia Gandhi in the past, Singh now had the ear of Rahul Gandhi. At a condolence meet, the toxicity spilled out, as Jogi first sulked and then erupted, declaring the state did not need any ‘garhia’, a reference to Singh (who hails from Raghogarh), who was present at the meet. Despite Jogi’s public show of annoyance, Sonia Gandhi ratified Mahant’s appointment in July. Jogi stormed off on a parallel campaign in August, threatening to put up spoiler candidates or, worse, hinting that he would branch out on his own. Unable to decide what was more damaging—open rebellion by Jogi or internal haemorrhaging—the Congress managers in New Delhi initially sought to delay the announcement of candidates, and finally stitched together a tentative truce in October, accommodating several of Jogi’s nominees, including his wife and son.

The disarray in the Congress may look frightening to observers, but within the party, many are calm—as Jogi’s adversaries, they are willing to sacrifice another shot at power if Jogi and his son, Amit, who is staking claim to a larger political role, can be vanquished for good. Arrested for the murder of a political worker in 2003, Amit’s notoriety remains intact, despite his acquittal in the case.

Its schisms notwithstanding, the Congress could still pull in a significant number of seats. Under similar conditions of internal warfare in 2008, the party polled 38.63 percent of the votes, just 2 percent less than the BJP, winning 38 of the 90 seats in the assembly. Historically, the party has had a strong base among Dalits and adivasis, who form 43.44 percent of the state’s population. Observers within the parties, and the local press, suggest that a section of the adivasi vote which had previously migrated to the BJP could return to the Congress this year.

Apart from this, the BJP also faces a peculiar variant of anti-incumbency. After Jogi’s arrogance, Raman Singh’s avuncular persona has stood the chief minister’s office in good stead. So has Singh’s political acumen in distributing mining largesse widely within the RSS and BJP folds. He has blunted any furore over crony capitalism by deftly managing the media (the Indian Express reported in December 2012 that the government paid regional television channels for news slots) and if some are to be believed, even the opposition (political gossip columns in the state have often referred to Ravindra Choubey, leader of the opposition, as a member of Raman Singh’s cabinet). But other ministers and BJP MLAs have not been as adept, and their constituents have not failed to notice the wealth they have amassed while in power. The government may have ducked the sentiment of anti-incumbency, but its ministers have not. While the BJP has denied tickets to some of its inconvenient representatives, the fear of internal sabotage and considerations of caste have compelled it to keep several others.

Through September, caste and community associations laid siege to party offices, staking claim to a share of tickets. A notable churn has been taking place within the Sahu community. Dissatisfied with both the BJP and the Congress, a few Sahu leaders have formed the Chhattisgarh Swabhiman Manch (CSM), which holds traction in Durg in the west. CSM has reached out to the Communist Party of India, a faction of the Bahujan Samaj Party, and smaller parties which have their own pocket boroughs. The third front, as the coalition of smaller parties is being called, is unlikely to win more than a handful of seats. But in Chhattisgarh’s assembly of 90 seats, every seat counts, and with the Congress showing signs of recovery in the most recent polls, political observers in Raipur have revived the speculation about a possible Congress-Third Front government.

If the discontent over what people called Brahmanwaad—the capture of political space by the Congress’s VC Shukla and his migrant Brahmin family—provided the initial spark for the demand for a separate state that would meet the aspirations of its toiling “sons of the soil”, the BJP’s ascendance has effectively buried that idea. A decade of BJP rule has furthered the political dominance of the small, powerful groups that form its core base: Banias and Thakurs. For generations, eastern India’s forest and mineral wealth steadily drew migrants from North Indian communities that came here to trade and swiftly rose to dominate the region’s economic life. But unlike Orissa, Jharkhand and West Bengal, where these communities exercise indirect control over politics through their financial muscle, in Chhattisgarh, they have made it straight to the top of the political pyramid. State health minister Amar Agrawal’s family came from Haryana in the 1920s and rose to wealth as the leading manufacturers of gudakhu, a wide-selling tobacco paste. That of Brijmohan Agrawal, the minister seen as second in power to the CM, came from Rajasthan in the 1950s to trade in grains. Even Raman Singh’s family migrated from Pratapgarh in Uttar Pradesh a century ago and became landlords in a village in Kawardha. In any other context, the rapid assimilation of migrants into the power structures of a society is worthy of celebration, but not when economically better-off migrants come to overwhelm the impoverished native population, imposing on them their social values and economic interests.

In 2011, I travelled often to the district of Janjgir-Champa, where the Dalit presence is large enough to have drawn BSP founder Kanshi Ram to contest his first parliamentary elections in 1984. Here, land made fertile by the river Mahanadi has become even more productive since a network of irrigation canals came up in the nineties, and even Dalit farmers owning small farms are able to live off the land, growing a double crop of paddy. But in 2011, the district’s farmers, big and small, were in panic. Their way of life stood to be disrupted by a rash of coal-dust spewing power projects cleared by the state—a whopping 36 projects that would have been the densest cluster of power plants anywhere in India. Two years later, the district has escaped social and ecological devastation, not because the government turned enlightened, but because a subsequent economic downturn in the coal and energy markets has forced many companies to lie low or exit the state.

It was in Janjgir-Champa, at the height of farmers’ protests, that I heard farmers talk of the cultural attitudes that they believed underpinned the government’s recklessness. “They are seth sahukar (merchants and traders). They have no zameen se lagaav (love for the land),” the farmers said of the BJP leaders. A similar sentiment prevailed in the adivasi-inhabited forests of Raigarh, Korba and Sarguja, where the state government was busy clearing the path for coal miners.

In a state created in their name, the adivasi areas in Chattisgarh’s north are dotted with mines, while Bastar in the south is covered by concertina wire. Here, Maoist guerillas have been able to tap discontent and channel it into a ferocious armed rebellion, forcing the government to put new mining and industry projects on hold. But years of a bitter civil war between the state-funded militia, Salwa Judum, and the Maoists, followed by the garrisoning of nearly 50,000 government troops against a growing army of rebels, has created a dystopia hard to dislodge.

The BJP has made electoral capital of this. In the Maoist-controlled areas, adivasis, who have borne the brunt of the Salwa Judum, are unable to cast votes due to the rebel-enforced poll boycott. Outside, non-adivasi communities and an adivasi middle class living in fear of the Maoists rally behind the BJP. The party’s anti-Maoist rhetoric also fetches votes elsewhere in the state among people anxious that the rebellion will infect their countryside. Meanwhile, on the ground, in the conflict areas, the hardline stance continues to claim lives. This monsoon, the government abruptly asked the International Committee for Red Cross (ICRC) to wind up its health operations in conflict-hit Bijapur and Sukma, even as a diarrhoea outbreak was claiming an uncounted number of lives. No reasons were given in public. But it was easy to draw an inference: in 2011, the humanitarian organisation stood accused by a senior police officer of supplying medicines to the Maoists.

In September, a day after he completed the Vikas Yatra, his pre-election whirlwind tour of the state, Raman Singh boasted to a gathering of civil society groups that he had “opened up the tijori (treasure chest)” for his schemes of social welfare. After him, playing the cop, came his advisor Shivraj Singh, who reminded the groups in no uncertain terms that it would behoove them not to foment opposition to mining and industry in the state. It was yet more evidence that if Raman Singh wins a third term, it will mark the continuing success of the BJP’s policy of concealing an iron hand in the cushion of welfarism.