At around 7 pm on November 21, boatman Kamlesh Prasad Nishad was prodding pilgrims at Ram Ghat in Chitrakoot to hire his services for a boat ride on the Mandakini River. His repeated pleas were ignored by the tourists who seemed to be more interested in watching the evening aarti that was being conducted on the river bank in this Madhya Pradesh town. Nishad’s boat – decorated with fairy lights, strings of colourful artificial flowers and tinsel – was one of several vessels lined up along the banks of the river, waiting for tourists.

Madhya Pradesh will vote for a new Assembly on November 28, and just like others in Chitrakoot, Nishad was in the grip of election fever. “It is a triangular contest in Chitrakoot, but incumbent Congress MLA Neelanshu Chaturvedi seems to have an edge over his rivals from the BJP and BSP,” he said. “The BJP government has done lot of work in the state but the Congress candidate is very good, he helps the poor and often organises blood donation camps in the town.”

Chitrakoot town is part of the Chitrakoot Assembly constituency in the state’s Satna district. It falls in the Chitrakoot region that is spread across Madhya Pradesh and neighbouring Uttar Pradesh. The town is of religious and cultural significance to Hindus. “It is here that Bhagwan Ram spent 11 of the 14 years after he was banished from Ayodhya,” said another boatman, who joined in the conversation with Nishad. “People from across the world visit Chitrakoot to retrace his journey. The route that he took during his 14-year exile is also a favourite among politicians who often talk about developing it but never do.”

The route the second boatman referred to is the Ram Van Path Gaman, a mythical route believed to have been taken by the Hindu deity Ram on his way to exile. The Ram Path was first brought up as an election issue to mobilise Hindu voters by the ruling BJP in 2008, and later in 2013. Chief Minister Shivraj Singh Chouhan had promised to develop a pilgrimage that would follow this route, which is said to extend from Chitrakoot on the state’s border with Uttar Pradesh to Amarkantak, the origin of the Narmada river on the border with Chhattisgarh. However, this route was never developed.

In its bid to highlight that the BJP had not fulfilled its 10-year-old promise, and as part of the soft Hindutva strategy it has been following, the Congress latched onto the issue in September, promising to develop the pilgrim spots along this path if voted to power. At that time, the party leadership seemed to believe that the Ram Path could be a major electoral issue in 23 Assembly constituencies across seven districts. Madhya Pradesh Congress Committee President Kamal Nath even announced that the party would on September 22 launch a Ram Van Gaman Path Yatra – an election rally that would follow the route. Its launch date was later postponed a few times. Finally, on October 2, when senior party leaders failed to commit to the yatra, local leaders flagged it off. It, however, failed to attract any attention among local residents.

Across Chitrakoot constituency, no one believed that the Ram Path was an election issue. “Caste remains the only factor around here,” said Rameshwar Singh, sarpanch of Chitrahara village. “Forget Ram Path, even development is not an issue in our constituency.”

Bhaiyyalal, an Adivasi from Chitrakoot’s Khilaura village, says he has to make his children work as he cannot feed them on his own.
Bhaiyyalal, an Adivasi from Chitrakoot’s Khilaura village, says he has to make his children work as he cannot feed them on his own.

Congress stronghold

Considered a Congress bastion, the party has won the Chitrakoot Assembly seat since 1998, with the only exception being 2008, when the BJP won with a margin of only 722 votes. “The Congress’ victory was largely because of Prem Singh who had won this seat in 1998, 2003 and 2013,” said Singh. “He died in 2017 leading to by-polls, which Neelanshu [Chaturvedi] won on the sympathy factor.”

Dacoits have been influential in this Assembly segment for decades, and former MLA Prem Singh – a dacoit-turned politician – is said to have terrorised the local residents who never dared to vote against him, leading to his several electoral victories.

Not much has changed over the years, and dacoits are still active in Chitrakoot – its dense forests provide the perfect cover to several such gangs. Several local residents advised this reporter to not venture into rural areas after sunset because of this. “Such is the terror of dacoits here that even if small-time dacoits like Babli Kol and Sadhna Patel contest polls, they will get 10,000 votes,” said businessman Pradyuman Tripathi of Machgaon village.

But this is the first time there are no dacoits in the electoral fray.

Like Rameshwar Singh, Tripathi also claimed that elections in Chitrakoot mainly revolve around caste. He said that Brahmins, who comprise the majority of the constituency’s population, are backing Neelanshu Chaturvedi because he belongs to their community. The BJP has fielded Surendra Singh Gaharwar, who belongs to the Thakur community. “If BJP would have given a ticket to Saurabh Sharma [a Brahmin], it would have divided the Brahmins,” said Tripathi. “BJP’s Surendra Singh Gaharwar had opposed the party’s Brahmin candidate in the 2017 by-polls. So there is a feeling amongst Brahmins that if he did not support our candidate then, why should we support him [now]. At present, Thakurs are supporting the BJP while Brahmins are backing the Congress.”

A shop selling religious books in Chitrakoot.
A shop selling religious books in Chitrakoot.

Caste factor

There are 1,98,933 voters in Chitrakoot. Of these, according to panchayat representatives and local media reports, voters of the general category comprise roughly 40% (Brahmins 36%, Thakurs 4%), Scheduled Castes 19.72%, Scheduled Tribes 18.91% and Other Backward Classes 21%. “Close to 95% Brahmin voters will go with the Congress along with some section of tribals and OBCs [Other Backward Classes], which should be enough for Neelanshu [Chaturvedi] to emerge victorious,” said RK Soni, a local journalist. He also emphasised that development has never been a poll issue in Chitrakoot, which was evident in the way Prem Singh kept winning without doing anything to uplift the people of this area, one of the most backward regions of the state.

Manoj Mawasi, a Kol Adivasi from Patni village, makes a living either by selling wood or working as a labourer. When jobs are hard to come by, he migrates to cities.
Manoj Mawasi, a Kol Adivasi from Patni village, makes a living either by selling wood or working as a labourer. When jobs are hard to come by, he migrates to cities.

Backward region

The land in this region is not conducive for farming, and a chronic water scarcity has made it tough for small farmers and Adivasis to eke out a living. The Adivasis in Chitrakoot are the poorest section of the population, with many of them migrating to cities in search of jobs. In neighbouring regions, Adivasis sell forest produce like the mahua flower to earn some money. But there are hardly any mahua trees in Chitrakoot so the only way Adivasis can earn a living here is by selling wood, working as daily labourers or migrating.

Manoj Mawasi, a Kol Adivasi from Patni village, is one of them. He makes a living either by selling wood foraged from the forest or working as daily wage labourer. When jobs are hard to come by, he migrates to cities like Delhi, Mumbai, Faridabad and Pune to look for work. “I sell dry wood and manage to earn only Rs 50 in a day [here],” he said. “It would be better if I go to work in some city.” Mawasi added that he and his family buy drinking water from a big farmer in the village who has a borewell.

A few kilometres away, Rajkumar, a Kol Adivasi from Khilora village, was busy laying fiber optic cables for telecom major Reliance Jio. He said that this was the only development activity he has seen in this area in years. “Instead of laying water pipes, we are getting fibre cable,” Rajkumar said. “In fact, Jio tower has become a landmark in the region. I do not know what we will do with high speed internet when we can’t even feed our families.”

In former MLA Prem Singh’s village of Khilaura, Bhaiyyalal, an Adivasi, was cycling home on November 21, after a hard day of work. Wearing a torn shirt, the barefoot Bhaiyyalal narrated how development has eluded Chitrakoot constituency. “I don’t know what we have done to deserve this,” he said. “I have to force my children to work as there is no way I can feed them on my own. I can’t even leave them here and go work elsewhere. They will become criminals.”

Scroll.in spoke to several other Adivasis in the region who had similar stories. Bring up the elections, and they do not even seem to know the names of the candidates. “For four years and 11 months, our community will talk about haathi [the elephant, the election symbol of Mayawati’s Bahujan Samaj Party] but it all changes in the last month when politicians come here and hand out money and liquor,” said Dadulal, an Adivasi from Patna village. “Overall, the tribal vote gets split amongst several parties. Till Prem Singh was alive, we voted for him out of fear.”

The Bahujan Samaj Party has a strong presence in the region and even won the seat in 1993. However, since then its vote share has been constantly dipping, largely because of Prem Singh. This election, Bahujan Samaj Party candidate Ravendra Singh Patwari is putting up a tough fight and is expected to eat into the vote share of the Congress. “The BSP [Bahujan Samaj Party] vote share is quite high,” said AS Parihar of Chitrakoot town, who works with Sadhguru Seva Trust Sangh. “If Congress and BSP had an alliance, there would have been a clean sweep in Chitrakoot.”

Counting for the elections are scheduled on December 11.

Unlike the others, Parihar is confident that the BJP will win the seat, emphasising that it is foolish to undermine the Thakur community who have large land holdings and can influence Adivasis who work for them. “They can swing votes through brute power and intimidation,” he said. Parihar added that though Chitrakoot might see a close contest, it was not so in the state. “There are 95% chances of Congress coming to power,” he said.

A villager carries firewood near Patni village in Chitrakoot.
A villager carries firewood near Patni village in Chitrakoot.
Children play outside a house in Khilora village in Chitrakoot.
Children play outside a house in Khilora village in Chitrakoot.

All photographs by Akash Bisht.