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’.