Fruits of megalomania

SUNIL KUMAR

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WHEN elections were announced in five states, barring the Bharatiya Janata Party and the Nationalist Congress Party, few in Chhattisgarh expected the Congress to perform so badly. Election pundits explain that the Congress defeat is not particularly shameful, that it has lost only a small percentage of votes, and that only the loss of seats in the tribal areas was totally unexpected, and so on. But those who have watched Chhattisgarh closely over the past three years would surely mourn for the state’s first chief minister, Ajit Jogi, who had worked overtime and shown great vision for development. In a short span of time he helped make the infant state very different from its dark and bumpy parent state of Madhya Pradesh.

He was among the most erudite of chief ministers and knew the state like the back of his hand. The first chief minister who could communicate with the masses in the local Chhattisgarhi dialect, he was adept at playing to the gallery. He even claimed that the goddess Danteshwari, the most widely worshipped tribal deity, had visited him in his dreams and instructed him to distribute school bags to tribal children – a divine explanation for what became an eyesore for the Election Commission.

 

 

So here was a chief minister who got to live in the very same bungalow where 20 years ago he had lived as district collector. He worked tirelessly for 18 hours a day, but felt threatened by V.C. Shukla, the Congress strongman who had dictated to Jogi in his days as collector, but could not, alas, become chief minister of the new state. V.C. Shukla has a history of creating trouble for the Congress whenever he does not like its decisions.

Till the name of Jogi was announced to take oath of office, rumours were rife that Shukla would form the government with a small group of Congress MLAs and BJP support from the outside. So, to be on the safe side, after a year of his rule, Jogi engineered a defection in the BJP ranks and 12 MLAs joined the Congress. It was a most uncalled for move, because no such show of strength was needed on the floor of the legislature; but for greater stability within Congress, it could have been helpful – splitting the Congress became that much more difficult.

Here was a new state with a wounded Congressman and a bleeding BJP. Both had a score to settle with Jogi. The frustration and ambition of V.C. Shukla gave birth to the Chhattisgarh unit of the Nationalist Congress Party. Though Sharad Pawar has no following in this state, Shukla had enough clout to spoil Jogi’s show. All he needed was an electoral symbol to field candidates in all the 90 seats.

Chhattisgarh witnessed its first elections in November-December 2003. The political and electoral parameters were very different from those of an undivided Madhya Pradesh. The situation also stood in contrast in these two adjoining states. While the parent state suffered from serious developmental problems, Chhattisgarh enjoyed the fruits of surplus power, good roads, and its parched villages were blessed with thousands of ponds created each month. Even as Madhya Pradesh was left with disgruntled power consumers, Chhattisgarh managed to walk away with the best power generation plants. The new state suddenly had its due share of everything, an overnight change from a near colonial exploitation at the hands of the more prosperous parts of the erstwhile Madhya Pradesh.

 

 

Meanwhile Jogi played the tribal card, the backward caste card, the school bag card and many more. He gradually became so self-obsessed that he lost all sense of proportion. In his entire tenure, not once did he realize that his son was running amok. The Congress, probably even the country, had never seen anyone like Amit Jogi after Sanjay Gandhi of the Emergency infamy. What troubled most Congressmen in the state was the free rein given to Jogi by the party high command, leaving him at liberty to decide party affairs like matters domestic. Every senior Congress leader developed a visceral dislike for him.

Jogi’s son apparently had a free hand to abuse his father’s ministerial colleagues and officials. Reportedly, he decided on large government contracts with the help of his notorious friends from Delhi. Perfect power brokers, they had a finger in every pie. Amit Jogi even grabbed the local cable television network with the help of faithful IAS and IPS officers. All over the state, small cable operators were forced to hand over a part of their network or were booked for ‘showing’ pornographic films and faced harassment.

 

 

As if this was not enough, he arm-twisted some not very friendly media persons and bought out some newspapers by offering crores as election advertisements. This was another reason why Jogi never got to know the harsh realities waiting for him on polling day. Not that he would have believed any of them. Some people fail to see the writing on the wall; Jogi failed to see the wall itself. Till the results of the counting became irreversible, he was not aware of the offerings in store for him. Prince Narcissus was in a blissful state, claiming more than two-third majority.

All this served as a made to order propaganda material for the BJP and V.C. Shukla. Once on opposite sides during the Emergency, they now aligned against a common enemy. Both had enough experience of the political outcome of such misdeeds, and were confident of defeating Jogi. Not many, other than V.C. Shukla who kept claiming till the very end that he would form the next government, expected more seats for the NCP, and it got just one. The BJP got what it had expected and Congress what some observers had predicted. The only unexpected outcome was the tribal seats of Bastar going to BJP with a kind of religious fervour.

The plains region of the state, where most of the Jogi-sufferers lived, was not expected to yield many seats to the Congress. However, probably the economic growth and industrial development in the last three years made them vote for Congress and the Jogi government. The market witnessed a never seen before growth in these three years, a major reason why Jogi got more seats than many had expected.

Tribal Bastar had set a strange record in the previous election, voters giving 11 out of 12 seats to Digvijay Singh’s Congress. As part of undivided Madhya Pradesh, Bastar rarely came into sharp focus of media and election analysts. But during the 2003 elections, some well-informed sources told me that the elections held in Bastar five years earlier had not been fair. It was alleged that many booths were non-functional and district officials had gifted those seats to the then Congress Chief Minister Digvijay Singh on a platter, though with some help from conniving polling parties.

 

 

A number of pundits link the Bastar support to BJP with the caste matters in courts against Jogi who is fighting cases in different courts to prove that he is not an ‘untouchable’ as alleged by petitioners, but a tribal. This case has political ramifications as Jogi contested the election from a reserved tribal seat. His caste and disputed tribal status can be decided only in a court of law and not through elections. Just as the election verdict in favour of BJP or against the Congress in Chhattisgarh cannot be considered as a verdict for Ram mandir or Moditva, similarly the tribal vote in favour of BJP this time is not a tribal verdict on the caste status of Jogi. In essence, it was a vote against Jogi, the person.

Even as Jogi was busy designing a new cabinet, the BJP was busy influencing the tribals with something they cannot resist – the cow. The party promised one cow to each tribal family, and RSS workers spread the message of this bounty. Push the button on the lotus symbol and get a cow! Not a bad bargain. Most tribals in Chhattisgarh don’t drink milk, but they are voracious beef eaters.

Besides, there were no loyal civil servants of Digvijay Singh this time. The Election Commission, after endless fights with Jogi and his mercenaries, changed many district collectors in this small state and deployed paramilitary forces in the Naxal affected Bastar. Naxalites are usually sympathetic to Congress when the only other choice is BJP. In the Bastar region the only seats the Congress got (3/12) this time are from the Naxal stronghold district of Dantewara.

Jogi has no real reason to complain that the Naxals didn’t support his party. Though this time the paramilitary CRPF relied on helicopters while travelling with electronic voting machines to and from polling booths, many observers doubt the unprecedented numbers polled in this region, given Naxal blasts and their threat to boycott elections. Incidentally, apart from an attractive cow, the BJP manifesto also promised a monthly allowance of Rs 500 for the educated unemployed. So the youth in below poverty line families had this great offer even outside Bastar.

 

 

Let us move away from Bastar. The tribals are scattered all over the state. A large number of non-tribal seats also have tribal voters, and unemployed youth of every section, so the BJP’s offer appealed to a large number of voters. Consequently the youth, usually hostile to incumbent governments, had additional reasons to poll against the Congress which had ruled the state for the last ten years. Finally, there was V.C. Shukla, the ‘charismatic’ old man who could galvanize the disenchanted youth. He had become a symbol of protest within the Congress party against Jogi and his son, as well as outside the Congress. Just by putting up candidates he made it possible for the BJP to win a dozen and half seats. Intending to be a spoiler from the beginning, he succeeded in his mission. Shukla’s only misfortune is his insignificance in the current tally where a clear BJP majority in the assembly did not allow him to become the kingmaker.

 

 

The BJP victory was facilitated by several professional inputs from within the party machinery. Its poll campaign was effectively designed as leader after leader poured into the state from Delhi, Mumbai, Gujarat and Jharkhand, kept the media happy, and grabbed free headlines on news pages. Jogi, on the other hand, resisted every leader sent by the party to the state as if reluctant to share the credit of what he perceived as his inevitable victory. Of course Sonia Gandhi was allowed to campaign, in addition to Laloo Prasad Yadav, the only leader Jogi had invited.

The state was already bored with having to see Jogi staring down at them from giant hoardings. No wonder, most people stopped responding to his speeches and statements. Since no other Congressman of any stature was allowed any role, they busied themselves in just their home constituencies. There is some truth to the allegations of the Jogi camp that seniors like Shyama Charan Shukla and Motilal Vora did not step out of their sons’ constituencies; both however lost and promptly claimed that Jogi had spent millions to ensure that.

Even as Amit Jogi decided the inter se worth of different newspapers in rewarding them with party advertisements, Ajit Jogi publicly wondered where the BJP would get any of its seats. They were like a two-man army running the government and the party alike. It actually needed a self-obsessed Ajit Jogi to inflict defeat on the Congress as well as on the achievements of his own government, a fascinating mix of the good and the bad.

Jogi worked overtime – politicking every minute, designing defections, humiliating people, arm-twisting opponents and their powerful supporters with all the might of a chief minister. Even if there was an easy, straight and comfortable road to travel, he preferred to walk on high voltage electric lines. He launched many welfare schemes, but at the same time made enemies by crushing his opponents ruthlessly, making more people dislike him with every passing day. His son stormed around like a wild bull in Jogi’s china shop. Frankly, only Jogi was capable of defeating himself despite a good governmental performance on many fronts. Ultimately it was the Congress that suffered, losing a state that should have been in its pocket.

 

 

Many people feel that the decline of the Congress may continue into the coming general elections. It seems unlikely that when in a few months time voters elect the next prime minister, Sonia will be a force in comparison to Atal. And this has little to do with her Italian origins. Those uneasy with a ‘foreigner’ as PM are already solidly with the BJP. Even others – Congress voters and leaders – find her no match to the leadership qualities of Atal. If the ‘secularists’ fail to have a leader capable of challenging Atal Bihari Vajpayee one can hardly blame this on communalism.

It is important to look at a couple of other problems that the Congress faced during these elections, cutting across the states that went to polls. The Congress was ruling all the four large Hindi speaking states. The television news networks had adopted an aggressive style in their election coverage, talking to people in every bulletin. All states face some problems, but a continual telecasting of the Congress governments’ shortcomings day and night by innumerable people, projected a picture of an inefficient and corrupt party. It was only Sheila Dikshit who survived this electronic media onslaught with her Janbhagidari programme. No government can do enough to satisfy both the common people and television channels during the elections.

 

 

Another problem, at least in the three states of Chhattisgarh, Madhya Pradesh and Rajasthan, had to do with the fallout of a Supreme Court decision. For the last year and a half, scheduled castes and tribes have faced problems in getting caste certificates. The Supreme Court had ordered government authorities to look into the records of 50 preceding years before issuing such certificates. A large number of scheduled castes and tribes are very angry about it, especially in border areas experiencing migration from adjoining states. Constituencies adjoining the Vidarbha region of Maharashtra in Chhattisgarh have a huge population of dalit Buddhists, who decided not to vote for the Congress party whose government was denying them certificates in the absence of adequate records.

This was neither noticed before the elections, nor was it reported in any election analysis. Senior BJP leaders have, in their interviews, accepted that they had the services of RSS workers in all border areas from the neighbouring states. These dedicated workers rode bicycles through the interior villages promising cows and unemployment allowance. The Congress was no match for this motivated work force. And in the next Parliament elections, the situation cannot be much different.

The criminal cases against Jogi and his son became a regular feature of every news bulletin and dominated front pages during the elections. All four Hindi states were to some extent affected by it. So low was Jogi’s credibility in the public and media that when the video of Dilip Singh Judeo surfaced, the Jogis became a natural suspect.

The people of Chhattisgarh were already sick of reading criminal charges and allegations against Amit Jogi. While it is shocking that few found fault with a minister taking a bribe, it was even more shocking for people to learn that Amit Jogi had laid the trap and designed the entire conspiracy along with his friends. The countdown for the exit of Congress in Chhattisgarh began rapidly. Jogi started looking like a villain and the opposition allegations against his son got the credibility BJP and NCP were yearning for.

 

 

It was clear even a month before the election process began that it was too late for the Congress to change its leader in the state, though there was a CBI chargesheet against Jogi. No other Congress leader was willing to take over from Jogi in the middle of the mess he had created. Despite their complaints, Sonia had handed the state to Jogi on a fixed period lease. It was Sonia’s failure that she so insulated herself from her own party leaders who were standing up to her chief ministers.

Jogi had benefited from a strong campaign within the Congress party for a tribal chief minister. The campaign was basically started to checkmate old Brahmin stalwarts like Shyama Charan Shukla, Motilal Vora and V.C. Shukla, not by Jogi but by the ministers of Digvijay Singh who had always opposed their role in Madhya Pradesh politics. After Jogi became the chief minister, he started another political campaign targeting the same stalwarts – the backward caste movement, led by his former Director General of Police, R.L.S. Yadav.

Though Yadav managed to unite the backward castes in every village, once Jogi failed to get them party tickets in keeping with their new expectations, this very unity worked against the Congress. In many pockets they voted heavily against the party. Since the entire design was originally a Jogi idea, only he is being blamed for the backward caste boomerang. This was Jogi’s unique style of functioning – the backward class campaign was not required to fight the BJP, but his own party leaders to humiliate them.

 

 

There is now a Congress party in Chhattisgarh with Motilal Vora as its state chief, and a younger leader, Charan Das Mahant from the backward castes as the ‘working’ president. The leader of the opposition in the state assembly is a tribal leader from Bastar and Jogi rival, Mahendra Karma. This troika have never worked with each other and have nothing in common except their dislike for Jogi. They belong to different regions of Chhattisgarh, as well as to different caste formations. It is a simplistic compromise formula to compensate for the absence of a charismatic leader. It could also be a cautious reaction to the serious setback suffered at the hands of its self-styled former charismatic leader. Possibly, a humiliated Sonia had little choice but to swing to the other extreme, cutting Jogi off all patronage and nominating his critics to party positions in the state.

But these are the internal problems of the Congress party. The new BJP government in Chhattisgarh has approached governance sensibly. The style of the new Chief Minister, Raman Singh, is that of a person who is warm and humble, yet firm. He is aware that his own performance and that of his ministry is under the tight vigil of his party. He is willing to look ahead rather than be weighed down by the exercise of looking for skeletons in the Jogi cupboard. He has the backing of the BJP led Union government that is working overtime in designing schemes and projects to shower on the state just before elections are announced.

 

 

Since Chhattisgarh is some distance from the communal atmosphere of Gujarat, and Ayodhya is not an issue between the two communities or parties, the Raman government is very unlike the Uma Bharati government of Madhya Pradesh. There are no obvious signs of Hindutva, nor are temple replicas visible on the chief minister’s table, as in Bhopal. The BJP has a very different image in this state than in Gujarat and UP or even Madhya Pradesh.

People have obviously overlooked the wounds of Gujarat and voted for the BJP in Chhattisgarh. There is no reason why they will not vote for Vajpayee in the forthcoming election. In any case, the present Congress looks like Hindutva’s ‘B’ team, if the recent public display of temple hopping by Digvijay Singh and Ajit Jogi is anything to go by.

The fruits of economic growth, urban development, and liberalization are keeping urban, moneyed and the vocal sections happy. These are the sections that matter to the media. So the newspapers are full of the ‘feel good’ story. Chhattisgarh has seldom seen bumper crops year after year, so there is also a local feel good factor in addition to the so-called national one.

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