It was expected that the Bharatiya Janata Party would fight tooth and nail to overcome backbreaking anti-incumbency in Chhattisgarh where it has won the last three elections and in that sense the ruling party has not disappointed. There was enough fire and brimstone with the BJP accusing the Congress of backing urban Naxals and the Congress retaliating by saying the BJP had failed to successfully fight Naxals. It should leave few in doubt, therefore, that the assembly elections in the state, the first phase of polling for which was held on Monday, will have the Naxal menace as its main theme even though the Congress also talks of development issues, rice for a rupee a month for families, farm loan waiver and even the Rafale controversy.
The Naxalites are not going to let it be any other way either. On October 30, it engineered a murderous assault in Nilwaya in which Doordarshan cameraman Achyutanand Sahu was among those killed. Even on Monday, election day, it detonated an IED device in Dantewada, where polling was held. In their threats to the local population, warning them against casting their vote, they have said that anyone with voting ink would have the fingers cut off. However, there is also a silver lining. Both Bastar and Dantewada which went to the polls on Monday recorded a higher turnout of voters than in 2013. No message is perhaps strong enough or a deterrent enough to cold murderers like the Naxalites – even their show of contrition following the killing of the Doordarshan newsperson has been dismissed as a strategy to come across in better light. Nevertheless, a higher voter turnout perhaps sends a message that they will not be cowed by the left extremists.
It needs to be mentioned that the state government has not always been helpful to the villagers in Maoist strongholds for their acts of bravery. For instance, many who fled the violence and came to government-protected sanctuaries have been all but forgotten and left to fend for themselves. They live in constant fear of reprisals from the Maoists. And then, as is common in such situations, the villagers are caught between the devil and the deep blue sea – Maoists on the one side and the security forces on the other who often view them as being Maoist sympathisers.
It appears now that while the Maoist menace will cast a shadow on the polls, with the Congress viewing it as a stepping stone to return to power at the centre, there are several moving parts in the elections. One of these moving parts is the Ajit Jogi-Mayawati alliance in the state which is viewed as a spoiler for the Congress party. At least, that was the case when the two leaders joined hands initially. The Congress and the Jogi-Mayawati alliance, in any case, will have to deal with the well-oiled election machine that is the BJP. That is the other moving part – the charisma of Prime Minister Narendra Modi has no parallel and he has shown in past elections that he can single-handedly turn the tide his way. The first phase with 18 seats could be a tough start for the BJP – in the last elections it lost 12 of these seats. The high-octane campaign, with the BJP fielding stalwarts to push back the opposition and neutralise anti-incumbency has set the tone for the coming days. However, the BJP will need to fine-tune the campaign from the discourse on nationalism to how it plans to fight the Naxal menace and pull back on the development deficit of chief minister Raman Singh’s government.