It was two busy days and one very busy night that led to the 2014 Antagarh Assembly by-election in Chhattisgarh shrinking from a contest with 13 possible candidates, to a one-sided fight with just two. As reported by The Indian Express, purported tapes suggest Congress candidate Manturam Pawar withdrew following a possible financial deal. The next day — the last day for withdrawal of nominations — 10 others dropped out, helping BJP’s Bhojraj Nag defeat his only remaining rival, the Ambedkarite Party of India’s Rupdhar Pudo, by 51,000 votes.
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Pudo has also alleged pressure to withdraw, and has filed a petition in the High Court saying Chief Minister Raman Singh’s personal secretary O P Gupta offered him “anything” in return.
The Indian Express tracked down six of the candidates who withdrew — five of them Independents. Almost all of them talk of a night involving a roadside meeting, a tense taxi ride, a midnight raid by armed men, and two parties fighting it out — the Congress to keep at least one of them in the race, and the BJP ensuring that all drop out.
As one says, he was asked, “Election ladke jaoge kahan
(What will you gain by contesting)?”
Devnath Hidko, Independent
Hidko runs a grocery shop in Pufgaon village, deep inside Antagarh forests. Hidko says he filed his nomination to gain experience, “because I want to join politics seriously”.
On August 30, Hidko claims, a person who identified himself as Manturam Pawar called him and asked him to come to Antagarh. “When I reached, I found that Pawar had withdrawn his nomination. Within a few hours, the Congress reached out to five of us Independents, and asked us to agree on one name which it would support because Pawar had backed out,” he says.
The five of them, Hidko claims, met Congress state chief Bhupesh Baghel outside a petrol pump on the Kanker-Raipur National Highway at night. “It was agreed that Kanker was not ‘safe’, and we would go with a Congress leader to Raipur. Since it was late, we halted at the house of (Congress leader) Pankaj Mahavar in Dhamtari. Well past midnight, men in police uniforms carrying weapons and BJP workers arrived in at least 15 cars. We were all afraid so we went with them. One of them said ‘Election ladke kahan jaoge?’. Alok Thakur and Bharat Matiyara, both big leaders of the BJP in Kanker, were present. They took us to the BJP office in Kanker and then we all withdrew our nominations,” Hidko says.
The 28-year-old is disappointed but not disheartened — he intends to fight more elections in the future.
Shankarlal Netam, Independent
The owner of a small landholding in his village Imlipadar, Netam works as a driver. He claims while he filed his nomination for “experience”, he “never seriously intended to contest”.
Netam claims that after Pawar’s withdrawal, he got calls “asking me to come because the Congress was thinking about backing one of the Independents. We met Bhupesh Baghel on the highway outside Kanker, and then (left) for Raipur because Kanker wasn’t safe.”
According to Netam, choosing one name proved difficult as, “given the circumstances”, none of the Independents wanted to contest either. “We stopped for the night at a Congress leader’s house in Dhamtari. Past midnight, police and other BJP leaders came. They asked us to come with them to Kanker. (They) said ‘politics is dangerous’.”
Netam adds, “I would have given up my seat even otherwise… I have got several calls even after the withdrawal and I just want to leave politics behind. Ab nahin hoga bhaiya (I can’t do this anymore).”
Bhimsingh Usendi, Independent
A farmer, Usendi claims to have joined the fray at the instance of fellow villagers of Sarandi. “I just wanted to see what would happen.”
On August 30, he remembers meeting Baghel “outside Kanker” and being taken to Dhamtari “because they wanted to decide on one of us”. However, Usendi adds, he left soon after. “I was very uncomfortable, and felt in danger. So I took a bus from Dhamtari, came back to Kanker and withdrew my nomination on my own. I thought if big people like Pawar had withdrawn, what would I get by contesting?”
He is done as far as politics goes, Usendi adds. “I am never going close to it again.”
Anil Netam, Independent
Netam isn’t new to politics. With the BJP for several years, he is a former sarpanch of Chikhli, also a village deep in the jungles; his wife occupies the post now. Netam says he decided to contest as an Independent when he was denied a ticket by the BJP.
“My party leaders tried to speak to me, I was told my time will come, that they would give me important posts. Alok Thakur (local BJP leader) even said I would be given some money; I have not received it so far,” Netam says.
He also claims that he had come on his own to the BJP office in Kanker early August 31 morning, ahead of withdrawing his nomination, when the other Independents were driven in by BJP leaders. “They withdrew their nominations with me.”
Netam claims to have left the BJP since, “as they have done nothing for me”.
Alok Thakur denies both offering Netam money, and that Netam had left the BJP. “He may not be a very active member given how remote his village is, and maybe that’s why he feels he is no longer a part of the organisation,” he says.
Raghunath Kumeti, Independent
Kumeti also joined the fray as a disgruntled BJP leader. “I had been promised the seat and was very angry (when Nag got the ticket). So I filed my nomination as an Independent.”
A leader from Tehkal village, he says he changed his mind at the party’s behest. “I am vice-president of the BJP in the district. Senior leaders asked me not to oppose my own party. After withdrawing, I even campaigned for Nag.”
Kumeti adds that his case is different from the other Independents. “I know nothing about them.”
Jaiprakash Padda, Shiv Sena
Padda, who runs a shop in his hometown of Bhanupratappur, says senior Shiv Sena leaders took the call to withdraw. “The only way we could have made an impression was if there were multiple candidates and the votes got distributed. But when everyone pulled out, the party conveyed to me that there was no point contesting. I was the last one to withdraw,” Padda says.
Of the four other candidates who withdrew, one was Pawar’s wife Savita Pawar, who was a dummy candidate for her husband. The other three, also Independents — Mahadev Mandavi, Parsuram Pawar and Virendra Kumar Hidami — couldn’t be traced. They have no mobile phones and are missing from their villages.
All party leaders named by the five Independents deny getting candidates to withdraw.
Bharat Matiyara, ex-district president of the BJP: “Everybody has the right to fight elections. Why would I try and influence them?”
Alok Thakur, Kanker BJP leader: “This is all Congress internal politics. Why did they take Independents to hide in a Congress leader’s home in Dhamtari? We believe in democratic processes and I was not involved in either speaking to them or bringing them back. Worried family members must have done so. I believe Manturam Pawar put them up to cut votes of the BJP and when he withdrew, they must have too.”
Thakur admits to talking to only BJP leader Kumeti. “We asked him to reconsider.”
Three Independents talked of meeting PCC chief Bhupesh Baghel the night before withdrawing names.
Bhupesh Baghel: “I found out that Pawar had withdrawn his nomination and rushed to Kanker. I met some Independents at a dhaba. They said they were very afraid. I told them to come to Kanker to talk about the Congress supporting one of them, but they said Kanker wasn’t safe. I had to go to Kanker, so I sent them to Dhamtari with a colleague. At night, in the Kanker hotel in which I was staying, the lights went off, and I began to feel very unsafe. I called Pankaj Mahavar (Congress Dhamtari district general secretary) to tell him moving out of the hotel wasn’t safe, and I would come in the morning. We also got messages they were trying to track the Independents, and I told Mahavar to be wary… Some hours later they (BJP workers) entered his home with the police, and took the Independents to Kanker.”
Pankaj Mahavar: “The Independents were tired so we stopped at my house in Dhamtari. It’s not like we were trying to hide them.” Past midnight, he adds, “at least 50 people” entered his house. “They then told the Independents to go with them, and scared, they went.”
Mahavar denies Usendi left on his own. “He must be saying that because he’s still afraid, which is understandable.”