Bishunpur lies on the road between Ghagra of Gumla district and Netarhat of Latehar. It catches the eye for two reasons. The name on boards indicating a self-help group or a farmers’ collective outside almost every village is one. The other reason is an absence: there are no churches in Bishunpur, which has a large number of tribals; in contrast Mahuadandr, beyond Netarhat, is a Christian-majority block.
Bishunpur in Gumla, part of the area voting Tuesday, is the headquarters of an organisation with its roots in the RSS, an NGO poised to play a key role if the BJP forms the government in Jharkhand.
Vikas Bharti Bishunpur, which still operates out of the place it is named after, has its state office in Arogya Bhawan, the sprawling RSS office in Ranchi. It was founded by four friends hailing from Uttar Pradesh; its current secretary is one of them. Ashok Bhagat, called Babaji by those within VB, was an RSS pradesh sangathan mantri in Azamgarh. “He was sent here in 1983 by Bhaurao Devras,” said Sidhnath Rai, who handles VB’s media relations wing, referring to the RSS ideologue.
Bhagat and his friends apparently chose Bishunpur for their work because it was extremely backward, with many primitive tribal groups. Initially, there was massive resistance to Bhagat in the region; he even received threats from Maoists. “When you live in the jungle, you will meet some junglee jaanwar,” Bhagat said during a short interview.
Today, VB has grown to have assets of over Rs 5 crore, and received over Rs 12.3 crore in project grants in 2012-13. It has a presence in all 24 districts of Jharkhand through the 27 mobile medical units it operates for NRHM. It has over 800 SHGs for women, and is in charge of ICAR’s Krishi Vigyan Kendra for Gumla, which works out of a building adjacent to the VB headquarters. Its 12 ashrams accommodated 848 students in 2012-13, many from vulnerable tribes such as Asur and Birgia.
As VB has grown, so has its clout. Minister of state Sudarshan Bhagat, also the MP of Lohardaga, is known to be close to VB. Minister Bhagat, known more as an RSS than a BJP man, is among the people who could be considered for the CM’s position if the BJP comes to power. Both BJP candidates in Gumla district are reportedly VB nominees; Bishunpur’s Samir Oraon is even a product of one of VB’s ashrams. The BJP dropped its sitting legislator in Gumla, Kamlesh Oraon, in favour of longtime RSS backroomer and JNU graduate Shivshankar Oraon, reportedly on the advice of VB’s Bhagat.
All this puts VB in a position to drive policy if a BJP government is in power. “Babaji has been concerned about the poor standards of health here. His dream is a 50-bed hospital in Bishunpur. We have had an ITI approved; the elections are holding up some of the approvals,” said Pankaj Singh, who handles VB’s various skill development efforts.
VB does not support any candidate in public. It has, however, sent all its employees home a day ahead of elections so that voting turnouts are high. It has also asked its supporters to inform it over phone in case they notice any instances of malpractice.