The electoral battle for the Antagarh assembly constituency in Chhattisgarh's Naxalite-affected Kanker district has now reached Delhi.

A delegation of the Chhattisgarh Congress petitioned the Election Commission on Monday to demand that the by-poll – due to be held on Saturday – be cancelled, alleging that money and muscle power has been used to influence the outcome.

The Congress’ Chhattisgarh legislators and state unit leaders staged a two-hour dharna at Jantar Mantar before they marched in a procession to the Election Commission to submit a memorandum demanding that the by-election be scrapped. They said they were doing this to protect democracy. “There is no fair and free election in Chhattisgarh,” the delegation claimed.

Undue pressure

Bhupesh Baghel, president of the Chhattisgarh Pradesh Congress Committee, said that the Bharatiya Janata Party-led state administration, which has been led by Chief Minister Raman Singh since 2003, has been pressuring candidates to withdraw from the fray. Baghel said the Congress candidate for Antagarh, Manturam Pawar, was forced to withdraw his nomination papers. After this, he said, the police and state administration colluded in pressuring ten independent candidates to quit the race.

“This is the first incident of its kind when a candidate of a national party and ten others were forced to withdraw their nominations,” Baghel said. He alleged that most of the candidates quit after they were told they would be classified as Naxalites and charged under the Public Safety Act. Baghel added that one independent candidate had managed to evade the officials, but that he was also being pressured to leave the field.

Fourteen candidates, including Congress’ Manturam Pawar, filed nomination papers for the election, but only two candidates remain in the fray.

The Chhattisgarh Congress has also asked the Election Commission to check the telephone records of a number of state police, officers of the chief minister’s secretariat and state BJP leaders. Baghel said this would establish that they colluded in intimidating opposition candidates.

Pankaj Mahavar, secretary of the Congress in Dhamtri district, Chhattisgarh, filed a separate affidavit in which he provided a detailed account of how the state administration and police bent the law to force candidates to withdraw from the fray.

According to Mahavar, six independent candidates sought Congress support in the election, and Bhupesh Baghel was to meet them at Mahadavar's residence to discuss this. But Baghel has claimed that he could not make it to the meeting as he was placed under virtual house arrest in his hotel, while the police barged in to Mahavar’s residence at about 3 am on August 30 and rounded up the independent candidates.

“About 25-30 armed policemen and local BJP workers reached my house early in the morning,” Mahavar said. “The police broke open the door, hurled abuse at everybody and forcibly took the six independent candidates.” The candidates subsequently withdrew their nomination papers.

Candidates are vulnerable

Mahavar explained it is easy to intimidate candidates here as they are dependent on the state government for security since Antagarh is affected by Naxal violence.

Assembly by-elections are typically a routine affair, but the recent round of by-polls has aroused considerable interest because they are being perceived as a test of Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s popularity early in his tenure. Consequently, the BJP’s losses in the recent by-elections in Bihar, Karnataka, Punjab and Madhya Pradesh have not gone down well with the party leadership.

Baghel maintains the Congress would have won the election as it led an effective campaign against the Raman Singh government about a scam involving bogus ration cards. He says the chief minister became worried about the party candidate’s chances and wanted to win the seat in order to ingratiate himself to Narendra Modi.