On April 9 in Shyamgiri, there was a crater in the middle of road, its size indicative of the ferocity of the IED blast. Five months later, the crater looks like the many other potholes that dot the roads in Dantewada.
That evening, on the field to the right, were mangled remains of a car and five bodies, one of those of BJP MLA Bhima Mandavi. Now, not many signs of the Maoist attack days before the Lok Sabha election remain. In Bastar, used to violence, life has moved on. The tragedy only survives among the family members of those killed. And in their political campaigns.
About 30 km away, in the main square of Dantewada town, billboards have been put up by the Congress and the BJP, introducing their candidates.
On one billboard, besides photos of national and state leaders, are photos of the candidate and her husband. Her name reads, “Shrimati Devti Mahendra Karma”. Next to it, the BJP billboard reads, “Shrimati Ojaswi Bhima Mandavi ko Shri Bhima Mandavi ji ki shahadat ko shhraddhanjali swarup kamal phool pe batan dabakar prachand maton se vijayi banaye. (To pay tribute to the martyrdom of Bhima Mandavi ji, please vote Shri Ojaswi Mandavi to victory by pressing the lotus button.”
Laxman Chouhan, a resident of Geedam, said, “Both parties are asking for votes not on the basis of their work or candidates, but their husbands who were big leaders. After Mahendra Karma was killed in 2013, we voted for Devti Karma. She did little work for the area and Mandavi beat her in 2018. Now he has been killed and his wife is contesting. If we voted for Devti Karma because of Mahendra, should we not vote for Ojaswi to show respect for Bhima ji?”
The Assembly bypoll in Dantewada, necessitated by the killing of Mandavi in the IED blast, is on Monday.
The other elements of the BJP’s campaign revolve around what they believe was achieved during the Raman Singh tenure, such as Jawanga Education City and Yuva BPO. It also believes that in areas such as Dantewada, Geedam, Kirandul and Bacheli, which have a high migrant population, its nationalist narrative will help.
The Congress message is clear and two-fold. In a roadshow in Geedam Friday, Chief Minister Bhupesh Baghel emphasised the state government’s work for the poor in nine months and juxtaposed this with allegations of BJP backing mining in Bailadila deposit number 13 on a hill that the tribals consider an abode to their God. The second part of the message is simpler. “Congress workers told us that this is a majority
Congress government and only a Congress legislator can get work done,” said Lacchu Podiya of Palnar.
But Congress leaders admit there is reason to worry.
Party sources showed an internal survey report, done just over a month ago, that showed the BJP ahead in the key questions “which party will you vote for” and “which candidate will you vote for”. Congress leaders have attributed this to infighting within the Karma family and said they have taken corrective steps. “Bhupesh Baghel and state party chief Mohan Markam have stepped in. We believe we may have clawed the difference back,” a Congress leader said.
But an impression of petty corruption may hurt the party. The principal of a school in a remote village said, “Ground-level government officials are angry at the transfer postings. Principals, health workers etc are influential in villages and we are not happy with the Congress government.”
While the CPI, Janata Congress Chhattisgarh (Jogi) and BSP are contesting, local residents agree this is set to be a BJP versus Congress fight.
In Palnar, Saturday is the day of the weekly bazaar. People meet and conversations turn to politics. They speak about Mahendra Karma, but also about Mandavi. The fate of this election could depend on whose memory evokes greater sympathy.