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In many ways, Rajnandgaon is my ‘Achilles’ heel’: while visiting the city for the first time in June 2003, I was accused of murdering someone I didn’t know previously existed; when I next returned to the city after a lapse of almost four agonizing years to campaign in a parliamentary bye-election, my father was arrested on the same trumped-up charge. In both cases, we fell victim to the worst sort of political vendetta, arising chiefly out of an absolute bankruptcy of issues: after all, as Christians living in a culture that venerates the giving of one’s life for the sake of others (see, John 3:16), what can be more slanderous or hurtful than to be accused of taking another human-life? Not a moment passed by in my 10½ month-long incarceration when I didn’t feel like the principal character in Tolstoy’s short story, “God Sees The Truth But Waits”.
The sole objective behind my father’s cathartic arrest at Gandai, some seventy kilometers from Rajnandgaon, became apparent during the Government’s submission filed before the hon’ble sessions court two days later: “even if the accused is to be enlarged on bail,” the Government Pleader (GP) pontificated, “he must be explicitly forbidden from campaigning in Rajnandgaon.” [The GP was dismissed shortly afterwards.] Despite this Freudian slip, the chief minister and his party went on to term this arrest as “part of the judicial process”. Not surprisingly, my father’s principal detractor within his own party, Motilal Vora, journeyed all the way from Delhi to Somni, a village on the Durg-Rajnandgaon border, to join chorus with the BJP. This, more than any other factor, led to my father’s subsequent public outburst against Mr. Vora: it hurt him that a senior leader of his own party should condone his arrest when it was so obviously politically motivated. Infact, the popular perception of Papa as a ‘calculating, shrewd politician’ is totally misconceived: what most political commentators don’t realize is that he has more often than not allowed his heart to dictate his politics.
The second part of the chief minister’s underhand tactics involved secret support, possibly even funding, of the BSP campaign under the mistaken belief that this would eat into the Congress’- and my father’s- dalit support base. Consequently, a senior IAS officer of the state administration, Aman Singh, was deputed to liaison with the BSP candidate, a notorious Raipur-based 'businessman' whose diatribe against my family grew increasingly ridiculous with every passing day so much so that he filed an affidavit stating that my mother, “Dr. (Mrs.) Renu Jogi, had threatened his life if he didn’t withdraw in favor of the Congress party” (!). As things turned out, he lost his deposit despite spending a large fortune on a very high profile campaign. The only surprising thing about this episode is the people he kept in touch with, as may be discerned from his telephonic call details, especially during the period of my father’s arrest [8th-15th March]: they included not only members of the BJP, including the chief minister and his candidate, Leelaram Bhojwani, but also the complainant, Satish Jaggi, and quite a few prominent state Congress leaders who I prefer not to name here.
In any event, Papa’s arrest, particularly the manner in which it was executed, catapulted as the predominant election issue at Rajnandgaon. A day after my father had been taken into custody by a 500-member armed contingent of the Raipur police led by its SSP Marawi, a television news crew visiting a remote hilltop Baiga village in the constituency was confronted with belligerent tribals demanding to know why Ajit Jogi had been arrested? Following his return to Rajnandgaon against medical advise, there was a fourfold increase in the number of people attending his public meetings. Editorializing about the Rajnandgaon mandate in the state’s largest circulated newspaper, ‘Dainik Bhaskar’, the noted journalist, Diwakar Muktibodh wrote:“The arrest of former chief minister Ajit Jogi is proof of [the BJP’s] political bankruptcy. Which of the BJP’s political strategists thought that the party would gain from Ajit Jogi’s arrest? It is a simple matter and everybody knows that when Ajit Jogi’s name has not been mentioned in the CBI’s investigation-report and the matter is in court, then what is the meaning of arresting him immediately after a lower court issues a non-bailable warrant on the private complaint of Satish Jaggi? The political motives of this can be very easily understood. Similarly, the registering of the offense of dacoity against Jogi in the Dongargarh police station just one day before polling is also laughable. How can such serious charges be leveled against a man who is on a wheelchair? Nobody believes this, not even the voters of Rajnandgaon. This move of the BJP also backfired, and far from turning the people against Jogi, it generated an environment of sympathy for him.”[Dainik Bhaskar, Raipur, 2.04.2007, page 1, translation mine]
Done by Duryodhana?
As things stand, the people’s verdict confirms Mr. Muktibodh’s opinion. Indeed, the plot to keep Papa out of the campaign backfired on the ruling BJP and its chief minister, who rather humiliatingly, lost both in his home constituency, Dongargarh, and his hometown, Kawardha, where the chief ministerial couple had taken a hectic door-to-door campaign in a last-ditch effort to save face. His post-electoral attempt at justification is at best, feeble: “Operation Duryodhan,” he rationalized shortly after the result was announced, “prevailed over Inflation.” This contention, which is in total reversal of what he was saying earlier, is easily countered by posing two questions:
• How did his party’s candidate, Leelaram Bhojwani, manage to retain his hometown, Rajnandgaon, by a margin of more than 5000 votes despite Duryodhan? Here, ‘the son of the soil’ factor seems to have overridden every other factor, at least in the township. The indisputable surmise that Mr. Bhojwani remains more popular in his home constituency than the chief minister is in his makes the chief minister’s defeat even more shameful.
• Why didn’t the RJD lose Palamu in neighboring Jharkhand even though its MP had been implicated in Duryodhan? To say that Duryodhan presented incumbent political parties with a fiat accompli- that its candidate will ipso facto be ousted in the ensuing bye-elections- is therefore incorrect. If anything, Palamu is indicative of a rather unfortunate trend: the downplaying, even acceptance, of corruption as an issue among the nation’s electorate.
It is obvious to me that the BJP has learnt little from Kota; in all likelihood, it will learn even lesser from Rajnandgaon. At a polling booth in Virendranagar, a puzzled presiding officer was confronted by angry women voters demanding that a complaint be registered against the local BJP workers for giving them ‘german’ (germanium) earrings while misleading them into believing that they were made of pure silver (!). Likewise, many BSP youth workers were disappointed upon learning that they will now have to make hefty installments of monthly payments on motorcycles ‘gifted’ to them, failing which these will be repossessed by the finance companies. Even more shockingly, a journalist recently emailed me a photograph of the chief minister’s wife, Veena Singh, handing a huge wad of thousand-rupee notes to one of her party workers from an overstuffed purse at Rajnandgaon, even as onlookers continue to stare at her (see below). It is a telling picture with a very clear message: people’s hearts- and votes- can’t be bought with money.
The other, much more pertinent, lesson concerns the tribals of the state. The BJP suffered its biggest defeat- of a whopping 22000 votes- from the Lok Sabha’s sole tribal constituency, Ambagarh-Chowki. Personally, I can discern three factors that contributed to this: first and foremost, it is a reaction against the atrocities perpetuated by the state-sponsored Salva Judum (SJ) movement, in which hundreds, if not thousands, of tribals have been killed; secondly, the numerous high-profile deaths of tribals and scheduled castes in police custody; thirdly, the abject failure of this state government to keep its election promises to the tribals vis-à-vis giving a cow to every tribal family, waiving of farmers’ debts and a monthly stipend of Rs. 500 to every unemployed youth. Taken cumulatively, it reveals an increasing awareness among the state’s tribal electorate.