Wednesday, December 03, 2008

Chhattisgarh 2008 (4): Thoughts on the Eve of the Verdict

In less than a week, all will be revealed: to paraphrase the Great Dickens, we would know for certain whether we are headed straight for heaven or going direct the other way. By most estimates- and here, I am not talking of ‘surveys’ published by various media houses (these, I shall deal with separately)- it is a tough call; even more to the point, we’re told that Independents, the BSP & the CPI would, in all probability, play a decisive role in the formation of Chhattisgarh’s third government. Not surprisingly, both major parties- the ruling BJP as well as the Congress- are already wooing them in earnest.

Even now- more than ten days after the second round of polling ended- it is difficult to decipher the precise vectors that led more than 70% of the state’s electorate to cast its votes- a significantly higher figure than in any of the other five election-going states (Madhya Pradesh, Delhi, Mizoram, Rajasthan and Jammu & Kashmir). Could this extraordinary polling percentage be only due to (a) an increase in the number of polling booths in every constituency, which made it easier for people to go and vote & (b) heightened awareness among voters thanks to an intensive media campaign, as many have surmised; or- and this is the really uncertain variable with the potential of upsetting all existing political calculations- were there other Issues- perhaps even an overriding Issue to beat all other issues- at play in the electorate’s mind? If so, what might they- it- be?

The two dominant versions currently on offer reflect, more than anything else, wishful thinking on the part of both major political parties: the BJP would have us believe that people went to the booths singing “Chaaur Waale Baba ki Jai” (Long Live the Rice-waale Baba) in an obvious reference to what they perceive to be the immense popularity of Dr. Raman Singh’s Rs. 3 per kilo rice scheme launched six months before the elections. The Congress on the other hand seems to draw comfort from the basic tenet of classical psephology: that a high voter turnout is indicative of a strong anti-incumbency undercurrent.

The BJP’s claim can be disputed for a variety of reasons. One, “chaaur waale baba”- a title the BJP claims the people of the state have lovingly bestowed on Dr. Raman Singh- isn’t really something any Chhattisgarhiya would say for the simple reason that “waale” is as alien to the Chhattisgarhi dialect as Dr. Singh’s Uttar Pradeshi- Pratapgarhiya- roots. Two, as I have already discussed in an earlier post, this scheme isn’t as big a success as it has been made out to be.

The way it works, a minuscule number of BPL (below poverty line) families in every village are given 35 kilos of rice every month at the rate of Rs. 3 per kilo. While this sounds very nice on paper, the fact is that since most Chhattisgarhi households are exclusively rice eaters, 35 kilos of rice would last a family of four barely ten days (and here I am assuming that they’re all frugal in their dietary habits). To meet their requirements for the remaining twenty days, they’re compelled to buy rice at prevalent market rates. Now, this is where the Scheme behind the scheme kicks in: the only rice available is in the black market, and it is sold at not less than Rs. 16 per kilo. In the ultimate cost-benefit analysis, therefore, the only true beneficiary is the blackmarketeer, who is inevitably a loyal party worker of the BJP. Moreover, even if one were to assume that 35 kilos is sufficient for every family, there is no denying the fact that only one in fifty families actually ‘benefits’ from this scheme; even so, most of these families, given the skewed manner in which BPL cards are allotted, aren’t really poor. In the many places that we campaigned, I couldn’t help noticing that the dominant complaint was that while the well-to-do families- those with a close relationship with the village Sarpanch, for instance- are getting their quota of 35 kilos of rice, the really deserving- and needy- ones simply aren’t. This, in my opinion, has led to even more discontent.

Maybe what I’ve just said above is mere conjecture; maybe Dr. Singh’s Rice Scheme has really worked wonders for the BJP. But as far as one could tell from what one saw- and heard- during the campaign, there were no visible signs of it. If indeed Dr. Raman Singh has metamorphosed into a larger-than-life cult figure- the hugely popular ‘chaaur waale baba’, as the BJP & a large section of the state’s media would have us believe- then surely it would only be reasonable to assume that people by the tens of thousands would be rushing from near and far to catch a glimpse of him, to hear him speak, maybe even to touch him in the hope of getting healed. Yet, for all that, the attendance at his preannounced public meetings were at best, a damp squib, not crossing fifteen hundred anywhere even when the BJP’s campaign-planners were careful to hold them at market places on weekly market days.

This phenomenon wasn’t confined to Dr. Singh: his party’s prime ministerial candidate and key campaigner, Mr. Lal Krishna Advani, left Raipur visibly perturbed when his rallies failed to draw crowds. (I’m reliably told that not more than seven hundred persons were present at his Katora Talab meeting very near where I live, and he had to wait for more than two hours before there was sufficient crowd for him to address at Jagdalpur.) The fate of Mr. Narendra Modi, whose feat Dr. Raman Singh hopes to no doubt emulate, was no different. His meeting at Kanker (north Bastar) wasn’t exactly what he- or for that matter anyone- expected.

Could it, therefore, be that all the mass-outpourings of adulation for our beloved ‘chaaur waale baba’ was totally undetectable to the average human eye (except perhaps those of Navbharat reporters)? If so, why? Were the people, for instance, afraid- nay, terrified- of showing their affection for him and his wonderful government? What could be the reason for this Deafening Quiet?

There is sadly only one answer to this: Dr. Raman Singh- Chhattisgarh’s ‘chaaur waale baba’- is purely a Creation of the Media. I can’t remember a time when the media- or a large section of it anyway- was so totally one-sided. No, actually I can: in 2004, right before the last Lok Sabha election, under remarkably similar circumstances. Infact I remember I’ve written something about it already on this Blog; so, what I say here might tend to be repetitive. Let me tell you a tale, then. Sometime back, Mr. Kanak Tiwari, a leading lawyer of the High Court and a widely respected columnist, submitted his weekly article to Mr. Sunil Maheshwari, the proprietor of a local eveninger who I like to think of as the self-appointed permanent advisor-in-chief to the chief minister irrespective of who the latter may be. When he discovered that his article had not been published, he quite reasonably asked Mr. Maheshwari why. The answer he got, he says, irrevocably shook his faith in the ‘sanctity of the media’: he was told pointblank that his article could not be published because it was apparently too critical of the chief minister. ‘Chhattisgarh’, Mr. Maheshwari’s publication created from money robbed from ‘Deshbandhu’ (a highly respected newspaper he worked for earlier, and milked for all it was worth), is small potatoes compared to Navbharat, once the biggest circulated newspaper of the state. For a princely sum of money- running no doubt into several crores of rupees- the BJP quite simply transformed it into its principal mouthpiece. Infact so blatant was this newspaper in its one-sided coverage of the campaign that many old-timers, who admired it for its neutral, hands-on reportage, decided to stop subscribing to it altogether.

The aforementioned publications thankfully reflect the ‘in extemis’ cases. As for the rest of the media (not all but most anyway), our candidates felt it was impossible to get them to write anything about their campaigns without paying for it. Given the fact that we’re not in power & more to the point, we- as a party- don’t have the crores it requires to be written about favorably in the press, it was, therefore, only natural to see a distinctively pro-BJP bias in the media coverage of the election in Chhattisgarh. How much has this worked to the BJP’s advantage- and by implication, to our disadvantage- would depend on whether the electorate’s opinion is purely media-determined (in which case, we are clearly the losers in the media game) or whether the electorate does infact realize that the media’s role is first and foremost to report on what is objectively, and that if- and when- it fails to do so, it loses its moral credibility.

Put simply, the media in Chhattisgarh, acting in collusion with the BJP, made Dr. Raman Singh & his government into something that he clearly was not: Chaaur Waale Baba. The Question is whether the people have accepted this media-created Image of his, and made it their own? Agreed, the Congress-led Opposition didn’t do its damndest best to put this government in the dock, as it jolly well should have done during the past five years, but that doesn’t mean that the Sins of this Regime should be forgotten & forgiven merely because nobody is shouting about them from the rooftops. I firmly believe that an Ineffective Opposition can be no justification for the continued existence of a Failed Government: the advantages of Democracy (in which each citizen has a voice) far outweigh the many ills of parliamentary procedure (where only select & at times manageable elected representatives have any say). Equally firmly, I also believe that this belief is not mine alone: it is shared by millions of others in the state.


The fact of the matter is that the BJP (unlike the Media) had realized long ago that it was facing an anti-incumbency wave: why else would it deny party tickets to eighteen of its sitting MLAs? Even more obviously, the chief minister himself shifted constituency, choosing not to contest from Dongargaon, which he has been representing these past five years! That subsequently this very obvious fact should be forgotten- and contrary claims of a massive pro-incumbency wave asserted not just by the demagogues of the party but also echoed in large sections of the media- is in itself peculiar, to say the least. This brings me to my next point. The incumbency factor- whether pro or anti- was at play at two levels: at the state level (which the ruling party, much of the administration as well as the media are if not denying, then at least not talking about); and also, at the local level, where people were judging the performance of those they had previously elected.

Propaganda of the kind we witnessed in Chhattisgarh can only dampen anti-incumbency at the state level; it does precious little as far as the local level is concerned, where the electorate is more likely to have first-hand knowledge of ground realities. Come to think of it, the more we approach the grassroots, the less effective propaganda as a campaign-mechanism becomes. So, yes, while last two month’s Media blitzkrieg might have helped salvage Dr. Raman Singh’s reputation as a non-starter non-performer by presenting him instead as an inoffensive Gentleman-ruler- this incidentally is Dr. Singh’s preferred public persona- it has, in my opinion, done little to change the perception of elected-representatives & also the various party candidates before their constituents; and, more to the point, it is precisely this first-hand knowledge of candidates, which is clearly not subject to media-influences, that would play the paramount role in determining which way a voter ultimately votes.

This is why the choice of party candidates becomes all-important. As a Congressman, I was perplexed (along with several of my party persons, I should think) about the time- and the manner- it took to decide on our party’s ninety candidates. I believe we spend in all fifty days- and nights- in endless rounds of meetings in Delhi before a list could be finalized: this would imply an average of fifteen hours of deliberations per candidate selected. Not only that, during all this time, the entire party- all of the state leaders with hundreds of followers in tow, at least twenty ticket-aspirants per constituency, each with at least a dozen supporters (taking the total into thousands of key party workers from all over Chhattisgarh)- had shifted bag & baggage to Delhi, leaving the field totally empty for more than two months just before the election. Typically enough, tickets were announced hours before the deadlines. But in retrospect, I think we- and by we, I mean the party- didn’t do such a bad job after all.

The Goof-up percentage was about 10%, which isn’t bad at all by our standards. Alright, the NCP alliance was totally uncalled for, especially in the two seats we left for them in Ambikapur division (Manendragarh, Samri), as I’m sure the results would no doubt reveal. Also, we could’ve done a whole lot better in North Bastar, where our candidates are, in all likelihood, destined to slip to third place in at least two otherwise totally winnable constituencies (Kanker, Bhanupratappur): in one, we gave the ticket to someone who has repeatedly lost four elections since 1990; and in the other, we gave to someone totally new. Consequently, we now face the prospect of Congress-rebels (rather than official Congress candidates) taking on the BJP directly.

However, at most other places, we were successful in getting the rebels to withdraw in favor of official party candidates, which in itself is no mean achievement. And while on the subject of rebels, let me point out that this is possibly for the first time that we have as many- if not more- BJP-rebels contesting: most curiously, in one constituency, the RSS fielded its candidate against the BJP’s nominee (Vaishali). This brings me to yet another ‘misperception’ created by the state media in collusion with the BJP: that of total disunity in the Congress. Infact, the reverse is true. Given that it is widely believed that Mr. Vidya Charan Shukla is my father’s bête-noire, it is highly creditable for the two to have met not once, but four times, in the duration of less than two weeks to iron out their differences, and arrive at a broad mutual understanding to work together towards bringing the party back to power in the state.

Nothing of the sort can be said of the BJP, where every leader of some stature- Mr. Tarachand Sahu, Mr. Shiv Pratap Singh, Mr. Ramesh Bais, Mr. Nand Kumar Sai, to name only four sitting BJP MPs- are openly opposing what they rightfully perceive as the intra-party Tyranny of Dr. Raman Singh as he has systematically destroyed all state-level leadership not his own in an attempt to manufacture his hegemony. In the case of Mr. Sahu, he actually personally protested at a police station demanding the arrest of BJP workers loyal to Mr. PP Pandey, the incumbent Speaker & BJP candidate from Bhilai; likewise, Mr. Shiv Pratap Singh’s son, Vijay, who is also the elected Jila Panchayat president of Ambikapur, is in the fray from Bhatgaon as a rebel candidate.

The setup at Ekatm Parisar, the BJP’s state headquarters at Raipur, provided positive proof of this all-pervasive sense of paranoia in that party’s decision-making mechanism during this election. The think-tank, which included only one local leader, Mr. Soudan Singh, was put-up on the third floor; beddings were placed on the stairway leading to that floor, all occupied by RSS-workers from outside the state; the chain-gates outside the entrance to the floor were closed shut, and the only access was through a solitary elevator, again manned by outsider RSS-workers. To further counter dissent, three hundred RSS-workers, especially trained at Nagpur and sent via Indore, were deployed all over the state, with specific emphasis on those constituencies where sitting party MLAs had been denied tickets. Personally, I feel that this almost-neurotic setup is most unbecoming of any party that seeks to function in a democracy like ours.

Yet, for some peculiar reason, the media remains remarkably selective in its coverage of this fact, which is there for all to see. Instead when the PCC president and the two working presidents of the party decide to go to Delhi on separate planes- as they may well do in the natural course- the media portrays it as yet another proof of the intra-party discord: could it be that they expect that the only way the three gentlemen can give a message of unity is by traveling not only on the same plane but perhaps by sitting in the same seat!

Admittedly, a lot of this has to do with the respective ‘cultures’ of both parties. In a truly democratic fashion, everything about the Congress is transparent: things get discussed, things get out. No such degree of freedom exists in the BJP (as indeed in the RSS): party bigwigs decide, everybody else is expected to follow, nobody talks, period. Discipline is the flimsy codename given to this absolute lack of intra-party democracy. But all that is changing, and I saw it very clearly during these elections. In the aftermath of the India Shining Debacle, Mr. Advani had famously lamented what he described as the ‘Congressification of the BJP’. That process, I believe, has reached its apogee in Chhattisgarh during this election.

The BJP, once a party of disciplined cadres, is behaving in many ways like the Congress; and vice-versa. It is curious sort of role-reversal: while grassroots Congress workers were going door-to-door quietly distributing voter slips (realizing perhaps that if they didn’t do so, there’s no way they could survive another five years of this BJP regime even if their leaders may well manage to do so, some of them quite comfortably even), their BJP counterparts, drunk in the excesses of power, could be seen crisscrossing highways in air-conditioned Scorpios fitted with loudspeakers, only stopping by to disburse booze, cash, saris, blankets and other such bounties from the Loot they collected during their five years of Misrule.

For a change, we were the ones taking the beatings, and consequently, I hope, the voter’s sympathy.


This article couldn’t possibly be complete if I don’t mention my father, Mr. Ajit Jogi. As I see it, my principal role in this particular election was to ensure that he gets to as many places- and talks to (how he speaks at public meetings is more in the format of a dialogue one has with a close friend and less in the way of a formalistic speech) as many people- as is humanly possible.

By sheer dearth of willpower- there is simply no other explanation- he addressed more than 115 public meetings in 74 (of 90) constituencies in less than fifteen days, sleeping for less than four hours everyday. The maximum time he gave to any constituency was Durg City (from where Mr. Arun Vora is contesting), where he addressed three public meetings and did a road show as well. He took only one last-day public meeting at Kota, my mother’s constituency. As far as Marwahi is concerned, both he and I were forbidden by the people there from coming even for a day, and consequently he didn’t get to go- let alone campaign- in his own constituency at all.

In contrast to this, the chief minister, as his party’s chief campaigner, took less than 90 meetings in more than twenty-five days (he got more campaign time as his party took about two days to finalize its list of candidates while we took fifty), and spent more than four days campaigning in his own constituency (Rajnandgaon), barely making it in time to cast his own vote in his hometown, Kawardha.

Of course, Dr. Singh did try to make an issue of my father’s statement, made several months ago, that he would like to contest against the chief minister from any constituency of the latter’s choosing: however, he did so only after the last date of filing of nominations had ended, when he was quite certain that my father infact would not be able to contest against him. This was because the Congress high command felt, quite rightly, that confining Papa to one constituency- which is what he would have been had he directly taken on the CM- wasn’t a particularly sensible move especially since no one else from his party- the PCC president, two working presidents, the LOP and other state leaders included- was going to be campaigning.

This last aspect too I found somewhat perplexing: why is it that the state chief of the Congress, his one other co-chief and the Leader of Opposition, who all obviously played such a pivotal role in the candidate selection process, didn’t move out one itsy-bitsy bit outside of their respective constituencies to campaign for other party candidates, even those they had gotten the tickets for? How can one claim leadership of the entire state, as some of them no doubt would, when they are so threatened in their own homes to move out & seek support for others?

Coming back to Papa, he labeled the chief minister- the Media’s ‘Chaaur waale Baba’- “Labra Raja” (Liar King): the epitaph isn’t a personal insult, as the BJP leader Mr. Ravi Shankar Prasad complained to the Election Commission, but a reminder to the people of the many, many promises that he, as the chief minister, has failed to keep. No jersey-cow for every tribal family, no Rs. 500 monthly stipends for unemployed youth of the state, no waiver of electricity bills, irrigation taxes & farmers’ loans, to name only a few.

My father’s question really was this: can we trust this man- again? Soon, very soon, the answer would be clear, and we- you & I- would know whether we’re going to heaven or whether we’re headed straight in the other direction.

Read More (आगे और पढ़ें)......

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Amit Aishwarya Jogi
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Raipur- 492001
Chhattisgarh, INDIA
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