On a Thursday afternoon in late February, rows of Congress flags, posters and banners adorn the main road that cuts through Lohandiguda in Bastar. Beneath those posters — put up for the Chhattisgarh Assembly elections around three months ago which the Congress won emphatically — are at least 10 small vans.
Each carrying Congress flags, these vans, packed with residents from 10 villages in the area, are set to travel to other parts of Bastar for its occupants to speak of their experiences. These are villagers whose land had been acquired in 2005 and who, after 14 years and no industry, are being given their land back. In this election, these villagers might end up as the most powerful campaigners for the Congress.
Less than a week after the new Congress government took oath, Chief Minister Bhupesh Baghel announced that the government would fulfil a long-standing demand of over 1,700 farmers across 10 villages in and around Lohandiguda, and return their land.
In one of vans outside Lohandiguda, Shyamlal Sori, from Badanji village, said, “Ask around, and you’ll see that there is only one national leader that the adivasis of Bastar remember — Indira Gandhi. However, that association with the Congress became weaker when they too did not do anything for us, but it has always been there. Now that it is the Congress government that has given us back our land, why should I not tell others about it?”
Though they speak fondly of the Gandhis, Bastar constituency has been a BJP bastion, in particular the stronghold of another political family, the Kashyaps, for the last twenty years.
In 1998, Baliram Kashyap, a powerful BJP tribal leader, was elected MP from here. Since then, he won continuously from Bastar until 2011, when he passed away. His son Dinesh won the bypoll, and was re-elected in 2014.
Sori, however, believes the dominance of the BJP and Kashyaps may now be wavering.
“Everyone was in awe of Baliram Kashyap. He was a true leader, always sat with us, never forgot his identity. Even when we voted for his sons, we voted for him. But they don’t have the same aura as him. In the Assembly election, Kedar, his younger son, lost even though he was a minister. All these years, on the issue of land, we didn’t vote out the BJP because we didn’t think the Congress was different. But they have returned the land,” he said.
In Takraguda, five kilometres from Lohandiguda, excited murmurs emanate from a room of the panchayat building. Smiling constantly, 15 farmers sit on the steel chairs that line the walls of the room, waiting expectantly. Behind a desk sits sarpanch Hidmo Ram and the government patwari. As the patwari calls out a name, she asks a farmer to come up to the desk and sign on a register. In exchange, he is given two booklets that say “Kisan card”. Inside it, there is not a lot of writing, but there is enough: name, khasra number, and size of the land being returned.
As they accept the cards, many recall the years of struggle and jail, and those who backed them. And it is not the Congress.
Sarpanch Ram says, “In 2008, there was a battle between villagers agitating for our land and the police who wanted us to accept the compensation. Takraguda was one village where most didn’t accept compensation. We were… taken to jail. Many were assaulted… We never stopped tilling our land, but we got no access to even the most basic schemes because the land was not ours… In all this time, do you think it was the Congress who backed us? Their local people wanted the plant. It was the CPI’s Manish Kunjam who stood by us.” The Indian Express tried to contact Kunjam, but couldn’t get through.
Asked what Takraguda would do in the elections now, Ram says, “That is the key question. But yes, the BJP has not supported us at all… At least the Congress has done this much. There is more to do… But the Congress is in power now, only they that can do it,” Ram said.
None of this is to say, however, that Bastar is not a challenge for the Congress. The dimensions of the seat are huge, spanning at its widest around 270 km, from Kondagaon to the southern tip of Bijapur, with a sparse population density, especially in south Bastar. Candidate selection is key, given that voting percentages vary greatly — high in and around Jagdalpur, such as in Lohandiguda where the Maoist influence is less, to very low in Sukma and Bijapur.