Among the five states to hold elections in India this winter, only Chhattisgarh has the distinction of polling being spread over two phases. The first phase will be held on November 12, when 18 of the state’s 90 constituencies go to the polls – 12 from Bastar region and six from Rajnandgaon district. These constituencies are considered “sensitive” because of the presence of the Communist Party of India (Maoist). The armed insurgent group, which opposes the Indian State, claims that elections are a farce and enforces a boycott in the areas where it can do so.

To counter this, the state floods the Maoist areas with security forces every election, even flying down polling officials to the most sensitive booths. Despite this effort, in the 2013 Assembly elections, 68 of the 2,634 polling stations in Bastar recorded zero voting and about 80 polling stations recorded less than 20 votes.

This year, Maoist parchas or notices calling for an election boycott have already appeared on walls and trees in the Bijapur district of Bastar region. A two-page note, signed by Vikas, secretary of the South Bastar Divisional Committee, accused the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party of introducing social welfare schemes merely to distract people from policies that have paved the way for corporations to loot natural resources. It asked people to “beat and send away” members of the BJP, even as it urged them not to allow members of other political parties to campaign. Instead, it said, they should be brought to the “people’s court” to face a question-answer session about their plans.

Of the total 23,632 polling stations in the state, Bastar region has 2,831. To enable the state to conduct the first phase of elections, 550 companies of Central security personnel will be stationed in Bastar and Rajnandgaon to supplement the existing 41 battalions. This means there will be more than one lakh Central security personnel in the area, in addition to the state police and special forces such as the district reserve guards and special task force created to counter the Maoists.

However, beyond the security cover, there are other reasons why the election in Bastar will be closely watched. In 2013, the Congress had won eight of the region’s 12 seats, halting the BJP’s ascendance in this area. Will the BJP recover the seats it lost? What could prove crucial here is the impact of new entrants in the fray, such as the Aam Aadmi Party and Ajit Jogi’s Janata Congress Chhattisgarh.

Although AAP fielded candidates in the 2014 Lok Sabha elections, this will be its first Assembly election campaign in Chhattisgarh. Sanket Thakur, AAP spokesperson in Raipur, said the party has built a base in Bastar among educated Adivasi youth. “In each constituency, we have secured around 4,000 supporters through our membership drive, taking the number to about 60,000 in Bastar,” he said. In 2014, the party had fielded activist Soni Sori as a candidate. Her forceful advocacy of Adivasi concerns, the party hopes, will strengthen its prospects in at least six constituencies. However, it is aware that the government has projected the party as pro-Maoist, which will limit AAP’s reach in urban areas, primarily home to the non-Adivasi trading community.

Ajit Jogi, an Indian Administrative Services officer-turned Congress politician, became the first chief minister of Chhattisgarh when the state was formed in 2000. He launched his own party in 2016, six months after his son was expelled from the Congress for anti-party activities. His Janata Congress Chhattisgarh has entered into an alliance with the Bahujan Samaj Party, which has been contesting elections in the state since 2003, including in Bastar.

Past elections

Bastar region, now divided into seven districts of Sukma, Dantewada, Bijapur, Bastar, Kondagaon, Kanker and Narayanpur, sends 12 legislators to the state Assembly. Twenty nine of 90 seats in the Assembly are reserved for Adivasis, who form 30.6% of the state’s population, according to the 2011 Census. Eleven of the 29 reserved constituencies lie in Bastar, which means the region represents more than a third of the Adivasi voice in the Assembly. The 12th seat in Bastar region – Jagdalpur – is a general seat.

After Chhattisgarh was carved out of Madhya Pradesh in 2000, the first election in the newly independent state was held in 2003. The BJP won 50 seats, which it held on to in the next two elections, stumbling only by one seat in 2013. However, its weakening hold in Bastar region should give it some cause for concern.

In 1998, the Congress won 11 of the 12 constituencies in Bastar but lost eight seats to the BJP in the 2003 elections. The BJP consolidated its gains in 2008, winning 11 seats, leaving the Congress clutching one single seat of Konta. Mahendra Karma, who had won elections three times (in 1980, representing the Communist Party of India, and in 1998 and 2003, representing the Congress), lost from Dantewada. Karma had spearheaded the Salwa Judum, a state-sponsored anti-Maoist civil vigilante movement, which began in the summer of 2005.

The Judum had a devastating impact on the Adivasis of Bastar, especially South Bastar. According to the government’s own submission in the Nandini Sundar vs Government of Chhattisgarh case in the Supreme Court, from June 2005 till January 2007, over 400 persons had been killed, close to 400 injured, over 600 houses had been damaged and close to 50,000 people had been displaced from their homes.

Karma’s defeat in the 2008 elections was widely seen as an outcome of his role in the Judum.

However, in 2013, the Congress regained seven seats it had lost to the BJP, taking its tally in Bastar to eight. The anti-Maoist offensive called Operation Greenhunt had dented the BJP’s popularity. The Congress also benefited from the sympathy wave generated by the Maoist attack on a convoy of its workers and leaders in May 2013. The attack, which took place in Darbha area of Bastar district, killed 27 people, including Karma, state Congress chief Nandkumar Patel, senior Congress leader VC Shukla and others.

In the election that followed five months later, Karma’s wife reclaimed his lost seat in Dantewada.

Chhattisgarh Chief Minister Raman Singh in New Delhi on March 13, 2014. (Photo credit: AFP).

Parties and vote shares

Despite substantial gains in terms of seats, the BJP’s vote share in Bastar has remained largely static. Between 1998 and 2003, it went from one to nine seats, and its vote share rose by 6.18%. In 2008, with 11 seats in hand, its vote share improved only marginally by 1.15%. Subsequently, its vote share dipped by 4.08% as it lost seven seats to the Congress.

The Congress, despite big wins in 2013, has not been able to recover the massive 44% vote share it had in 1998. A crucial player that left a dent in its vote share is Mayawati’s Bahujan Samaj Party. It was non-existent in the electoral politics of Bastar until 2003, limiting its electoral presence in central Chhattisgarh that has a strong Dalit presence. In 2008, however, the Bahujan Samaj Party began contesting all the seats in the state. It managed to win 4.51% of the vote share, which most believe it wrested from the Congress. However, in 2013, the party’s vote share dipped to 2.68%.

The Communist Party of India’s presence in the state might be negligible, but its presence in Bastar cannot be ignored. It has consistently fought elections in seven or eight constituencies of the region: Konta, Bijapur, Dantewada and Chitrakote, among others. It won Dantewada three times – in 1980, 1990 and 1993. It won Konta twice – in 1990 and 1993. Manish Kunjam, the Communist Party of India leader who was elected from Konta in 1993, and is a current contender from the same constituency, attributes the party’s decline to a host of factors.

“The line between the party that created trouble in Bastar and the party that opportunistically opposes it is blurred,” he said. “The CPI [Communist Party of India] has consistently opposed thoughtless loot of natural resources and land in Bastar. But parties in power have wooed local Adivasi leaders with small-time benefits. While the Adivasis can see through this, given their dependency on those aligning with power, they find it difficult to translate their anguish into votes.”

The Communist Party of India’s sway in rural areas of Bastar is better than urban areas. In rural areas, the Maoists’ call for an election boycott cuts into the party’s votes, said Kunjam. Its vote share in Bastar slipped from 17.16% in 1998 to 8.17% in 2013 in the eight Bastar constituencies where it contested. However, the party continues to have influence in Dantewada and Konta. In the 2013 elections, it captured 12% of the vote share in Dantewada and 26% in Konta.

Jogi has stitched up an alliance with both the Bahujan Samaj Party and Communist Party of India in Chhattisgarh. The communist party will contest from both Dantewada and Konta.

Janata Congress Chhattisgarh president Ajit Jogi and BSP chief Mayawati during a press conference in Lucknow in September 2018. (Photo credit: PTI).

Election boycott and Nota

A key factor in the elections in Bastar is the ability of the Maoists to enforce a boycott. This varies from area to area. While Bijapur recorded the lowest turnout of 45% in the 2013 election, followed by Konta with 48%, the rest of the constituencies recorded a turnout of over 60%-80%. Kondagaon recorded the maximum polling of close to 85% and Dantewada a modest 62%.

However, a close observation of votes cast in individual polling booths in the last election reveals that 68 polling stations recorded zero voting and about 80 polling stations recorded less than 20 votes. Most of these polling booths are located in Bijapur, Narayanpur, Dantewada and Konta, which are considered to be a stronghold of the Maoists.

It is unclear whether this was an outcome of fear generated by the Maoists, or disinterest of the voters towards the elections, or whether the distance between the polling booths and their villages discouraged them to go out and vote.

Another notable factor was the share of NOTA or the none of the above option in the 2013 Assembly election. Of the total 1,30,29,558 electors in the state, 4,01,058 voters pressed the NOTA button, of which 20% (78,186 votes) were cast in Bastar’s 12 constituencies.

That year, security personnel had confirmed that during their election surveillance they found that Maoists – alongside urging voters to boycott the elections – were educating the villagers about NOTA and encouraging them to press the NOTA button if at all they had to vote.

Again, a close look at polling booths shows that about 4% of the vote share that year was for NOTA in the Bastar region, with Bijapur polling the highest at 10.15% and Jagdalpur the least at 2.83%. Interestingly, in some of the most sensitive constituencies such as Bijapur, Dantewada, Chitrakote, Konta, Bhanupratappur, Antagarh and Narayanpur, about 100-200 voters from close to 50 booths from various constituencies – Chitrakote, Dantewada, Bijapur, Narayanpur, Konta, Keshkal – polled NOTA en masse. Since the location of these booths are in the interior areas that are highly sensitive areas, one could well speculate that this could be an outcome of Maoist education.

October 23 is the last date for filing nominations for the first phase of elections. The Congress announced its list of candidates for the 12 seats in Bastar on October 18. The BJP announced its list of candidates for 78 seats across the state on October 20, but withheld the name of the candidate for one seat in Bastar. AAP not only announced its candidates weeks in advance, it even declared that Komal Hupendi, an Adivasi youth, contesting from Bhanupratappur seat, was its chief ministerial candidate, making its position clear on respecting Adivasi sentiments for an Adivasi chief minister.