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This time, a campaign in Naxal belt
At Kotgul, a remote village in Gadchiroli’s troubled Korchi tahsil, Congress workers, visibly tired after a day of campaigning for party candidate Namdeo Usendi, stop for tea at a local shop. It’s dark, but the village is still bustling with political activity.
At Korchi, over 2,000 people wait for state BJP leader Vinod Tawde to arrive in a helicopter to address a poll gathering. Tomorrow, they will have another opportunity to see a helicopter when Congress leader Harshawardhan Patil visits them.
At his wooden-hut office at Bhamragarh, BJP functionary Sunil Vishwas sifts through a heap of papers to check the progress of the campaign and expresses satisfaction with the administration’s preparations for elections.
For once, politicians in Gadchiroli and remote Maoist-affected areas of this Maharashtra district are confident this time, thanks to police crackdowns and breakthroughs. Security forces have shot dead over 36 Naxals since January 2013, including seven at Betkathi near Kotgul in February this year. Only last year, Naxals had forced over 27 sarpanchs of Korchi tehsil to resign. Since then, they have all taken back their resignations and are back in the saddle.
In the past, Naxal posters calling for a boycott of the polls would appear all over the district. This time, they have been restricted to a few places and even the movement of Maoists has been limited, claim security sources.
It is not as if the boycott calls work. Gadchiroli has always registered high turnouts, largely because security personnel have been escorting voters to the booths. What has changed this time is the campaigning where there used to be little.
“In 2009, we had to go on bikes, hiding campaign materials. This time, it has been easier. The two police camps that have come up in close vicinity have helped. We are sure the voting turnout will go up substantially in our area,” says a Congress worker in Kotgul.
“The forces have been moving in the interiors for over a month now. The atmosphere is much more relaxed. However, we are still leaving the campaign to our workers in the villages. No vehicles, no loudspeakers yet,” says BJP’s Vishwas said.
Political workers feel development is now the keyword even in remote villages. “They want development. They understand development is suffering because of insurgency,” an activist said. “Candidates either feared to venture out into the deeper areas, or they are not allowed by the police, but we do go inside,” says Congress’s Namdeo Usendi.
The BJP’s Ashok Nete says, “Since the 2009 poll defeat, I have travelled to several interior villages and met people. I have no problem.” Workers, however, say Usendi and Nete haven’t been to many places yet. A local journalist says, “The constituency is large. They better go to places where it matters the most.”
Polling stations in the district have gone up from 839 to 872, and the number of hyper-sensitive booths dropped from 234 in 2009 to 209. This time, only 27 polling stations have been shifted due to security concerns, as against 49 in 2009. “We have found no traces of Naxals,” says inspector general of police (Nagpur range) Ravindra Kadam, adding, “but we are alert.”