Chandu Lal Sahu, the BJP’s winning candidate from Mahasamund, was up against 10 other namesakes this election. Ashutosh Bhardwaj sets out in search of the Chandu Sahus and finds them spread across five districts and 1,100 km, polls and politics well behind them.
It’s morning and Chandu Sahu of Gadsivni village in Mahasamund district is out for a swim in the Mahanadi. On seeing our camera, Chandu ducks under water and heads for the opposite bank. His niece calls after him, but he is now just a bobbing head in the distance. At home, his ailing grandfather waits for the promised visit to the doctor. At his cycle repair shop nearby, a boy with a flat tyre waits for him. The shop will now probably remain closed the entire day.
Some 400 km away, Chandu Sahu of Goindra village in Mungeli district is attending to his cow. He, too, wants to run away but a group of children surrounds him and jeers: “Saansadji, tell us at least now, how much money did you get for contesting the election?”
Another 600 km away, in Bhatigarh village of Gariyaband district, labourer Chandu Sahu’s father is an angry man. “They promised my son a government job and Rs 50,000 for contesting the election. We got nothing, except for disrepute. Everyone taunts us. I told him not to set off on this path, but he was lured into it,” says Tej Ram, in his sixties.
His neighbours don’t believe a word of what Tej Ram is saying. “Chandu lapped it all up. Jogi (former chief minister Ajit Jogi) spent crores this election, why would he cheat Chandu for such a small amount?” one of them asks.
They were 10 in all, between the ages of 26 and 64. They lived in villages of central Chhattisgarh, insulated and isolated from the world of politics. Their only common denominator was the name —Chandu Sahu — that they shared with the BJP candidate from Mahasamund this election, Chandu Lal Sahu (Chandu Bhaiya). Seven of the Chandu Sahus carried BPL cards. Six of them hadn’t visited Mahasamund until the elections.
This summer, they found out they were contesting when each of them got letters from the Election Commission. All of them were Independent candidates with symbols such as bat, batsman and belt.
Someone had picked them up from across five districts and 1,100 km. An extraordinary talent hunt allegedly carried out by former chief minister and Congress Mahasamund candidate Ajit Jogi. The Congress leader, who denies any role in putting them up, says, “I do not know any of these Chandus. Only those making the allegations can tell who asked them to contest.” But the signs are obvious. In Bhatigarh, Chandu’s father says Rakesh Sahu, the Congress strongman in Gariyaband, had persuaded him to contest. In Ghaunch village of Mahasamund, Chandu’s neighbour is Mohit Dhruva, the Congress district president.
The Election Commission also faced a curious complaint — that the currency notes deposited by several of these Chandus as election fees carried the same number series. The BJP’s Chandu Sahu has now sought action against Jogi.
The BJP had reason to be anxious. The Mahasamund seat has some 2 lakh Sahus, a powerful OBC community, and if the 10 Chandu Sahus even got 5,000 votes each, the party candidate would lose over 50,000 votes. For Jogi, this was a crucial election. He had not contested last year’s Assembly election and had nominated his son Amit Jogi, but the party’s loss had dashed his chief ministerial ambitions. A win this election was important for him to stay relevant in the state and at the Centre. In the end, these Chandu Sahus together polled over 70,000 votes, but poetic justice prevailed. Despite retaining a lead through the counting day, Jogi eventually lost Mahasamund in the last round by 1,217 votes, the narrowest defeat in Chhattisgarh.
Two of the Chandus who live in villages near capital Raipur are more prosperous than the other Chandus — one owns a flour mill and the other has a bike repair shop. But these two were also the most oblivious to the contest, that is, until they got the letter from the Election Commission.
Miller Chandu Sahu of Temri village says, “One day, I got a letter about the election date and my poll symbol. I could not figure out anything. By then, there were some news reports about Chandu Sahus contesting from Mahasamund. I then realised I had been trapped,” he says. He, of course, never campaigned.
He says he had initially wondered how they got his photograph and even got it pasted on the election form. “I now know that they must have searched for Chandu Sahus in voter lists. Since it’s a computerised list, they could select us from distant places and avoid any suspicion,” he says. He even went to file a police complaint, but they didn’t entertain him. “I hope this fraud is exposed,” he says.
The bike-repairer Chandu of Bhainsa village had been persuaded by his uncle to contest. “My chacha kept insisting that I contest. I thought he had some unfulfilled dream of contesting elections. I later realised what it was,” he says. The uncle-nephew even campaigned on a bike, driving all the way to Mahasamund. Chandu got a heat stroke and was confined to his bed for a few days. But the uncle did not give in and made him campaign immediately after he recovered.
Chandu of Tarpongi village in Mahasamund district also campaigned on his bike. This Chandu appears to at least have a head for politics. Last week, he left his kirana shop to his son to watch Narendra Modi’s swearing-in-ceremony on TV. “Nothing for Advani so far. Maybe Modi will make him the president,” he says. He recognises sadhvi Pragya Singh from among the guests at Rashtrapati Bhavan and recalls a sermon of hers that he had attended years ago. He says he likes Modi and smiles when asked about the election in which he contested against the BJP candidate. “I like contesting elections. It’s the duty of everyone to contest,” he says.
Most of these Chandus admire Chhattisgarh Chief Minister Raman Singh for his rice schemes and have been BJP voters. While the Chandus who had a vote in other constituencies admit to having voted for the BJP, at least one Chandu of Mahasamund admits that he voted for the BJP — probably the only candidate this election to have voted against himself. The Chandus knew they would lose, that they were being used by the Congress, but most of them laugh about it.
Parvati, the 82-year-old mother-in-law of Chandu of Durgpali in Mahasamund, lives with her son-in-law and lords over his family. “Chandu cannot even count notes, but fought for Jogi. A pauper has nothing to lose. He either fights or dies,” she says and bursts out laughing. This Chandu is in his mid-fifties and works as a farm labourer.
Chandu of Tundra village in Baloda Bazar district has his name tattooed on his arm. This 64-year-old farmer is the only one to have contested an election earlier, that of a village panch. A group of children taunts him, calling him “Saansadji”. He chases them away but they come back. He says he had never been to Mahasamund before the election, but claims to have spent at least Rs 75,000 on campaigning. “Modi won because of his destiny. I could have also won,” he says, swearing that he never got any money from Jogi. Adds his son, who helps settle accident insurance claims, “I will soon meet Jogi and ask him to fork out at least Rs 5 lakh.”
Chandu of Ghaunch village in Mahasamund is a daily labourer. On a rainy afternoon, he is building a mud wall in his courtyard. He can’t afford cement. “I probably got 7,000 votes, that’s what people tell me,” he says. He campaigned on his cycle in neighbouring villages. He says some Congressmen took him to the nomination centre and gave the election deposit on his behalf. Mohit Dhruva, the district Congress president, is his neighbour. “The mediawallas came before the elections. Is there still something left? Are you sure it won’t harm my father,” says his daughter.
Goindra’s Chandu took to his new role with ease. Of the 10 namesakes, his village was the most distant from Mahasamund. Neighbours mocked him when they got to know he was contesting, but he ignored them all.
A farmer, his yearly income is Rs 25,000, Rs 35,000 less than what he spent on his election. During campaigning, he moved around in a Bolero that Congressmen had arranged for him and travelled through the ‘Sahu zones’ of Mahasamund. He felt good, confident. “Please don’t blame Jogi. I fought on my own and enjoyed it. I met people, asked them to vote for me. They asked what I would do for them. I said I would give them free seeds, bulls that plough well and cows that give more milk,” says Chandu.
These Chandus were apparently foisted onto the poll scene, do not remember how many votes they got, but as they canvassed — on cycles, bikes, cars — they have at least emerged more confident. Many of them are open to the idea of contesting again. “Next time I will fight with a plan,” says Tundra’s Chandu. Another says he will not confine himself to seeking Sahu votes and will reach out to others too.
What if they had won? All of them say they would have stayed back in their village, not left for Delhi. Bike-mechanic Chandu says, “If I had won, I would have shuttled between Delhi and here. I would have hired a few helpers, but this shop would have continued to run.”
For some, these proxy fights were not entirely without reason. Chandu of Taulideeh village in Baloda Bazar district is a 61-year-old BPL farmer. His son Santosh Sahu, a Congress worker, was murdered 18 months ago. Chandu’s contest was a quest for justice. “I thought by contesting this election, I would be able to take up the case at the national level and get justice for my son,” he says, pointing to his three grandchildren. “I now live for them. Who will take care of them?” He says the murder accused are in jail, but the key conspirator is still out and he wants him punished. It’s this sense of hurt that has pushed Chandu this election. Of the 10, he is the one who campaigned the most, spent the maximum, but has no complaints about not being compensated.
“I hired a taxi and travelled 8,240 km,” he says, showing the bills and his son’s Congress membership card that has signatures of ex-MLA and Jogi aide Shiv Dahariya. “Yes, I spent a good amount. But if your son is murdered, will you remain quiet?”
As the shadows get longer, miller Chandu, who had until then been dismissive about the election he ‘contested’, is drawn into the discussion when he realises he is the last Chandu to be interviewed.
He is curious to know the tales of his namesakes —where they stay, their lives, their villages and families. They have never seen each other, probably never will, but this election bound them in a way none imagined. For a moment, he switches off the milling machine to mute its constant rattling. “Can you show me their photographs in your camera? How do they look?”