I. An Anomaly
Ever since its commentary on the Kota bye-election in November 2006, this Blog has endeavored to offer its Readers candid- and sometimes controversial- analyses of elections in Chhattisgarh: there is no reason to discontinue this practice.
In this post, I seek to answer the most obvious question: when the rest of the nation- most notably Uttar Pradesh, its largest state and also, the definitive precursor of the shape of India’s future politics- has witnessed an unexpected groundswell of grassroots-support for the once ‘confined-to-the Pages of History’ Congress party, what makes Chhattisgarh the quintessential national anomaly? More to the point, why is it that we’ve managed to return only 1 Congress MP to the Lok Sabha (out of a total of 11) twice in a row (2004, 2009), especially when we seem to fare so much better in assembly elections that take place hardly 4 months before (2003, 2008)?
In order to answer this, let me share some lessons I learnt from Bilaspur.
As my mother’s campaign manager, I accept in toto the responsibility for her defeat. What’s infinitely worse is that even though I had a premonition of things to come, I was absolutely helpless to do anything worthwhile to prevent it.
After doing my rounds of booths on polling day (April 16th 2009), I went to call on Shailesh Nitin Trivedi, my father’s longtime political secretary who was admitted at Bilaspur’s Apollo Hospital after having been carjacked at Bilha, less than two kilometers from the new High Court complex; then forced at gunpoint to get into another vehicle where he was repeatedly beaten by goons (two of whom are now under arrest) and left for dead on an abandoned highway near Korba the night before. His ribs were broken along with his nose; his face was bruised & swollen, lips cut and teeth splintered; the white of his eyes had turned rusty; and there were visible abrasions on his chest and upper back.
Well, let’s just say that SNT wasn’t in the pink of health (although pink- or more precisely, a bloody crimson- was the color of his overall appearance). Under the circumstances, I was surprised to find that his first query, made with great difficulty and under considerable agony, concerned the election.
I told him point-blank that nothing short of a miracle could save us.
II. Where’ve all the Chhattisgarhi-Congresspersons gone?
My Cassandra-like prediction was based primarily on two factors:
1. EMIGRATION: Since Mummy’s ticket was announced only at the last moment- and on top of that, from a place none of us expected even in our wildest dreams to contest from- we had less than twelve days left to campaign. (After all, hadn’t we nursed Papa’s erstwhile parliamentary constituency, Mahasamund, for the past five years only to discover that Mummy was to contest from Bilaspur, some two hundred kilometers away?)
Under the circumstances, it was first & foremost necessary to ensure that the district party organization reaches every voter’s doorsteps. I therefore made it a point to distribute voter-slips at least twice before polling along with a simple feedback form seeking certain basic information about the composition of each booth such as (a) number of households; (b) number of deceased voters; & (c) number of absentee-voters.
When we got the entries in these forms tabulated, the statistics were shocking: more than 2,30,312 of the about 7,00,000 present voters were absentees. In one village near Beltara, 348 of a total of 760 voters weren’t there. I personally went to that village to verify if the figures were right. Most of them, as it turned out, were farmers. When I further inquired as to the whereabouts of these absentees-agriculturists, I was told that they had all gone out in search of work. Apparently, this phenomenon is prevalent in but in no way restricted to the central riverine basins of Chhattisgarh.
The mass exodus, I believe, is chiefly because of the poor ground-level implementation of NREGA in Chhattisgarh’s rural hinterland. (In a letter to the Election Commission of India written shortly after polling, the state’s chief secretary admitted that programs like the NREGA had been put on hold for the past six months because of a more or less continuous imposition of the Model Code of Conduct. He, therefore, requested in earnest relaxation of the Conduct rules.) Emigration in Chhattisgarh follows an annual pattern: with no work in sight, rural workers have little option but to leave their homes & hearths after the harvest of kharif crops to seek work elsewhere in order to sustain their families; and they return shortly before the onset of the monsoons. During this parched interregnum (January-June), fields lie barren and villages everywhere look deserted.
I was surprised when a noted economist from JNU (my alma mater) studying India’s unorganized labor market told me that wages across the nation, especially in metropolitan cities, actually come down during the summer months chiefly because of the this annual influx of rural laborers, many of who come from Chhattisgarh. The fact that Chhattisgarh shares its boundary with at least six other big states- Madhya Pradesh, Orissa, Jharkhand, Uttar Pradesh, Andhra Pradesh and Maharashtra- is also a big incentive for seasonal agricultural workers to go out to work in relatively higher-wage markets. The inertial of socio-cultural practice- emigration has been going on for so long that we actually have folksongs about it- also favors an annual mass exodus.
After having grappled with the evidence for too long and in the absence of any other satisfactory explanation to account for the statewide discrepancy in the Assembly and General election results, both of which take place immediately one after the other (and will continue to be held in the same sequential manner if Governments at the state and centre continue to complete their full terms), there is only one conclusion to be arrived at: most of those who emigrate during the months of January to June are- if by nothing else, then by the sheer force of habit- inclined to vote for the Congress. As the above discussion shows, they’re still in their homes- relatively relaxed and upbeat after having sold their harvests- in time to cast their votes in November’s Assembly election; but- and this is the real point I wish to make- they’re all clearly not around to exercise their franchise in April’s General election.
2. COLLAPSE OF THE PATRON-CLIENT NETWORK: To understand what this phrase means, it’s important to first revisit a bit of history, and in particular, Congress history. Before the Mahatma, Congress was a movement mostly of well-meaning intellectuals who believed in Memorandum-politics pitted (during the so-called ‘Extremist phase’ at least) against diehard revolutionaries who subscribed to an ultra-patriotic if somewhat crude Bomb-politics. It was only after Gandhi’s advent on the national stage in early 1920s that India’s freedom struggle truly became a world-class mass movement. Judith Martin, the Cambridge historian, believes that this had a lot to do with what she calls the ‘patron-client network’ that served as the foundation of this mass movement. Put simply, the Mahatma’s leadership was based on the unequivocal support of rural landlords (zamindars, jagirdars, bhomicharis et al) and the emergent-class of Indian industrialists in urban areas (Tatas, Birlas, Modis, Bajajes- all openly financed Gandhi’s anti-establishmentarian politics).
Both these ‘classes’ were, in effect, his chief ‘clients’; and Gandhi in turn became their principal patron by openly espousing causes that created in them a common interest to provide active assistance to Gandhi’s movement: his open advocacy of exempting agriculture from taxation in a free India, for example, naturally endeared him to the landed gentry whereas his call for Swadeshi, which led to a nationwide boycott of imported goods, naturally benefited Indian industry, especially the textile industry. Not only that, both these classes saw in Gandhi, their surest hope against reining in the Congress’ mostly socialist youth leadership (including of course Pandit Nehru, who was severely criticized by his mentor for passing the Socialist Resolution in 1928’s Lahore Congress Session). In return, they acted as the conduit between the Mahatma & the masses of India over whom they exercised a great deal of influence.
With certain realignments (which I shall not go into here) this patron-client network has served the Congress party remarkably well over the past six decades: more to the point, it has helped us remain in the fight against more organized cadre-based rivals, both to the Left and the Right (the Communists and the BJP). Yet, in Chhattisgarh, this network has collapsed completely during the past five years.
To put it crudely, Congresspersons need regular infusions of power- patronage is a more apt term- to keep ticking; without it, they simply tend to wither away. For the past five years, we’ve been out of power in the state; not only that, we (as in the Congress in Chhattisgarh) remained without representation in the Union as well where incidentally the Congress was in power. This is in sharp contrast to what happened in neighboring Madhya Pradesh, which elected 4 Congress MPs in the last general election but ended up having no less than 5 ministers in the union cabinet. Not surprisingly, the Congress’ performance in that state has improved significantly since Congresspersons there had access to ‘patrons’ they could turn to.
In Chhattisgarh, on the other hand, the ability of our leaders to provide patronage to party workers was severely eroded, if not totally destroyed during this time period, and more so after the assembly election last year, when they lost all hope of retuning to power for the next five years as well. (Unfortunately, a majority of party workers in the state viewed the one leader who did have some kind of official authority- the Leader of Opposition- as a crony of the state government rather than as a patron of the Congress.) In more realistic terms, this meant that the Congress leadership remained totally helpless in getting their workers’ children admitted into decent schools and colleges, or in finding them jobs; it could not help them get contracts; and when somebody in their family fell sick, it was in no position whatsoever to get them financial assistance from the government relief funds.
Here, it is also pertinent to mention that unlike a big state like Madhya Pradesh, the level of political interference in smaller states like Chhattisgarh is significantly higher: in fact, as anyone living here knows only too well, it is extremely difficult for anyone to get things done even at the panchayat level without some kind of political tweaking ‘from above’. Under these circumstances, even the most ardent party persons in the state have been compelled to look for alternatives- not out of disloyalty to the party but out of sheer compulsion: the necessity of survival. For instance, if the local BJP bigwig called one of our (hypothetical) party workers in the middle of the campaign to tell him that he was perhaps working a little too hard, he would in all likelihood reply that he was merely going through the motions of attending meetings etc. while reassuring the bigwig that he would do ‘nothing out of the way’. In the rare event that this worker did actually persist- like the brave Mr. Trivedi- then an altogether different fate awaited them!
Not surprisingly then, this peculiar situation has led to a total demoralization of the party cadre in Chhattisgarh. The pervasive feeling among Congresspersons is that the state has ceased to exist for ‘Delhi’: that they no longer matter in the overall scheme of things. The Lok Sabha results- when the Congress has won an astounding majority despite the party’s dismal showing in Chhattisgarh- only seem to confirm this feeling. As a Congressman, I believe it is imperative that these deep-rooted ‘systemic’ grievances be redressed urgently.
To that end, I offer the following cursory suggestions.
It is clear from the above discussion that the election cycle, as it currently exists with assembly elections in November-December followed by nationwide general elections in April-May, has put the Congress at a significant disadvantage in Chhattisgarh for the simple reason that a majority of our traditional voters are absent when it’s time to vote in the latter. There are, as I see it, only two ways to change this election cycle: one, change the timing of the general election (which given the current mandate at the Centre, is quite unimaginable); two, change the timing of the assembly election.
But merely changing its timing would not suffice: the conditions for holding assembly elections must also change in order to ensure that the electioneering process is truly fair, and voters, especially those who are currently enslaved in Salwa Judum camps, can exercise their franchise freely. The Constitution contains adequate provisions for doing both; and requisites for enforcing these provisions are not entirely absent in Chhattisgarh especially in light of the ongoing genocide in the (forgotten) tribal regions of Bastar. Moreover, as we’ve learnt only too well from the situation prevalent in Jharkhand and much of the north-east, political stability in small states is not only an exception to the rule but in most cases, it isn’t even a virtue: the redressal of people’s grievances against their governments more often than not leads to a ‘maximum solution’ within the constitutional framework.
And in any case, there is simply no third option.
Secondly, the capacity of the Congress state leadership to function as effective patrons should be revived. This can be done most easily by giving the state representation in the Union Government as well as the party high command, and then- and this is far more important- ensuring that this political representation translates into a rebuilding of the now shattered patron-client network across the length and breadth of the state.
Unfortunately, Congress state leaders have once again taken ultimately meaningless finger-pointing. Infighting has always been a factor in the Congress, and in all probability, it will remain so for many, many more years to come. Yet, this is not a factor unique to Chhattisgarh or even to the Congress (as the recent developments in the once-disciplined but now ‘volcanic’ BJP has shown only too well). We’ve learnt to live with it, and have emerged stronger despite- or in some cases when infighting has led to constructive competition rather than incessant backbiting, even because of- it.
The time has come for us, therefore, to stop playing the blame game. We can begin by accepting that first and foremost there are certain factors- apart from the rampant infighting- that have led to our present plight. Secondly, we must realize that these factors have nothing to do with individuals; they’re, as I have endeavored to show above, ‘systemic’. Lastly, only a comprehensive strategy that rises above the narrow confines of personality-politics- and investigates the ‘why’ rather than the ‘who’ of the problem- can help us tackle these systemic causes, and lay the foundations of a Congress resurgence in Chhattisgarh.