Chhattisgarh turns into religious battleground as polling date draws near

As December 1 draws near, election campaign takes a nasty religious turn...
( [email protected] ) Nov 25, 2003 11:05 AM EST

Chhattisgarh, India., Nov. 25 - As it approaches December 1, the day for polling in four northern states, it is evident that Chhattisgarh is where the ugliest election battle is being fought in India today.

If you thought one tape showing a central minister taking money was bad, another, sleazier one started doing the rounds almost immediately. Day after day, since campaigning began, state politicians led by a wily chief minister on the comeback trail, have shown that they won't stop at anything to upstage their rivals.

At about the time when the clippings of former union minister Dilip Singh Judeo accepting currency notes and comparing them with God were being shown on television across the country on November 16, another tape — this one an audio cassette — was being circulated in Raipur's political and media circles. Almost everyone who heard the audiocassette was left speechless.

It contained a taped conversation between a woman, purportedly in bed with a senior politician who is currently waging a do-or-die battle for political survival. Freely available to members in Raipur's media circle, the cassette is replete with explicit sexual references generally found in porn movies.

Was it just this present election campaign in the state or was it the nature of politics in general that had stooped so very low? This is a question people in the state want answered. "It had never been so dirty and acrimonious," says Ramesh Sakya, an elderly shopkeeper at Raipur's Jail road, commenting on the standard of the election campaign this time round.

That political discourse in the state would be acrimonious, even unsavoury, was clear from the day Chhattisgarh came into being as a separate state on November 1, 2000. Take the Congress, for instance. The infighting within the party provided a glimpse of the kind of kind of crass politics that would be a commonplace in the state in the days to come.

Because of the wishes of Congress president Sonia Gandhi, Ajit Jogi was installed as the state's first Chief Minister, dashing the hopes of the area's tallest Congress leaders Shyama Charan Shukla and his younger brother Vidya Charan Shukla. While the elder Shukla bowed before the party president's choice of leader, his brother refused to stay silent and staked his claim to leadership.

The central Congress leadership then deputed Madhya Pradesh Chief Minister Digvijay Singh to work out Jogi's installation, which he did successfully. Digvijay, however, suffered quick retribution because of his role in the episode. When he went to VC Shukla's farmhouse on the outskirts of Raipur afterwards to inform him of the Congress legislators' decision to elect Jogi as leader, Shukla's supporters pounced on him and tore his clothes.

In the days after that, the state was witness to a cycle of political horse-trading, allegations of murder, scandals and instances of rule bending that attracted the attention of the Election Commission.

In Jogi’s case, seeing VC Shukla's opposition to his leadership, he set out to woo his supporters. He also started working on BJP MLAs, and in December 2001, 12 of them left, splitting the BJP This set the tone for confrontationist politics in the state, which became nastier as assembly elections approached.

The BJP hit back by questioning Jogi's tribal status. The National Scheduled Tribe and Scheduled Caste Commission, headed by BJP leader Dilip Singh Bhuria, declared that Jogi did not belong to the Kanwar tribe, but Satnami caste, a scheduled caste. The implication was that Jogi had fraudulently got elected from Marwahi, a reserved scheduled tribe constituency in Bilaspur district. While this case is still pending in the Chhattisgarh High Court, a similar case questioning Jogi's tribal status is before the Madhya Pradesh High Court.

The BJP also tried to whip up passions on the issue of conversion. With Sonia Gandhi as Congress president and Jogi chief minister, Judeo's 'Ghar Wapsi' campaign aimed at converting Christians back to Hinduism, got a sting. Judeo launched a concerted campaign after Jogi come to power, alleging conversions were on the rise since the latter became chief minister.

According to sources, Jogi told one newspaper, "Forcible conversions were banned here much before Chhattisgarh became an independent state. And till date, not a single case of this kind has been registered anywhere in the state.

"Meanwhile VC Shukla became Jogi's second political rival outside the Congress, a move that — as events later showed — added further bitterness to state politics. Shukla, who was feeling increasingly isolated in the Congress, joined the Nationalist Congress Party (NCP) earlier this year to launch a formal campaign to oust Jogi. The political rivalry acquired sharper edge when NCP's state treasurer, Ramavtar Jaggi, was killed in June this year, and Jaggi's son, Satish, named Jogi and his son Amit as suspects.

Unruffled by opposition attacks, Jogi continued to consolidate his position politically. He also started firming up his grip over the administration, surely realising that without it he would not be the man in charge. The BJP charged him with posting 'pliable' officers in politically important places keeping in mind the assembly polls. Says BJP MLA Brij Mohan Agarwal, "The sycophancy of the bureaucracy crossed all limits when one collector started calling Jogi 'Daddy' and his wife 'Mummy'."

The charge of sycophancy against the state bureaucracy acquired legitimacy when Chief Election Commissioner JM Lyngdoh described the Chhattisgarh bureaucracy as being worse than that of Gujarat. After scrutinising the complaints, the Election Commission ordered the transfer of several government officials, including some collectors and superintendents of police.

The chief minister did not escape the commission's notice either. It came down heavily on the distribution of schoolbags embossed with Jogi's photographs. When some trucks carrying the bags were intercepted even after the commission ordering a complete ban on their distribution, BJP and NCP activists made it a big issue by organising demonstrations in different parts of the state.

For the record, even the BJP-led Central government was not spared by the commission which asked it to stop issuing advertisements highlighting the Vajpayee government's achievements as the model code of conduct had come into effect.

Missing in the pungent political climate all this time was the involvement of a central investigating agency. That too happened in Chhattisgarh when the CBI filed a charge sheet against Jogi, alleging that he "dishonestly and fraudulently" represented as genuine a forged Intelligence Bureau (IB) document to harm the reputation of a special director of the IB and the central government. The alleged IB document contained several corruption charges against Jogi.

The CBI enquiry was initiated after Jogi, in a letter to Prime Minister AB Vajpayee on March 31, alleged that the IB was being "misused" by the central government to "defame political opponents, including Congressmen" like him and it seemed the plan was to "fabricate a make-believe story" of corruption.

Since the CBI charge sheet was filed a day after the announcement of the elections, Jogi called it 'witch hunting'.

For a time, it looked as if the BJP had managed to turn the tables on Jogi. The developing political drama was, however, far from over. What was coming was a mushroom bomb that at once lowered the level of politic campaigning and raised the bar for political rivalry.

This was the Judeo tape. When television channels started showing Judeo with the alleged bribe money, and with just about a fortnight left for polling day, Jogi bounced back with sharper attacks. The question is: Why has the election campaign been so rancorous this time? "They are over ambitious and lack sobriety," says Dr Khaliqur Rehman, Head of the English Department of the Government Girls College, Raipur.

Has one of the dirtiest and most acrimonious election campaigns ever come to an end? Who knows, for if the CBI, which is looking into the controversial video tapes, comes out with its findings before the state goes to the polls on December 1, or the court decides on Jogi's tribal status in the meanwhile, the electoral battle may take yet another bitter turn.