It may be that occasional standout episode in the general drama of blood and gore, but the successful completion of the polling process in Chhattisgarh has possibilities for the future. For the first time in over a decade of bloodletting, an election has gone off without polling booths being attacked, electronic voting machines (EVMs) looted and loss of life limited to four as against 28 in 2008 and 45 in 2009. The buoyant 67 percent polling figure in 18 Naxal-dominated seats that went to polls in the first leg and 76 percent in the second leg are being held up as proof of safe passage.
Preparations and care are the key, says HPS Sidhu, IG, Punjab Police, now in charge of CRPF operations in Chhattisgarh. The Election Commission (EC) led by Sunil Kujur and the police led by DGP Ramniwas had roles to play in ensuring this. In the backdrop of the Jeeram Valley massacre of Congress leaders in May, the EC pumped in more than one lakh troops into the only state to witness a two-stage election process.
After several rounds of meetings in New Delhi and at least two instructional sessions held by Chief Election Commissioner VS Sampath in Raipur, issues were ironed out one-by-one. At a meeting with the home minister and officials in August in Delhi, Sidhu and Ramniwas impressed the need to deploy at least 11 more companies of the CRPF. During the election, 566 companies of paramilitary, 60 of Chhattisgarh Armed Police and another 100 companies of district police were inducted and posted in seven districts of Bastar and Rajnandgaon.
The troop movement itself was a challenge. “We had to gather more than 4,000 vehicles, buses and trucks, which disrupts goods movements and school schedules for days,” says IG GP Singh in charge of coordination between various forces that had landed in the state.
Arundev Gautam, IGP, Bastar, too had his task cut out, identifying and locating troops in sensitive zones. The decision to leave out the state police and hand over the reins for the peaceful conduct of the polls to the paramilitary also seems to have worked.
Kujur and his able deputies, Alex Paul Menon and Nidhi Chibber, implemented Sampath’s plan to a tee. After much discussion, 167 polling booths in most sensitive areas were moved to safer places along the road or to areas that could be easily accessed by security forces. Menon, who had been kidnapped by Maoists last year, used his knowledge of the region to good effect. After initially deciding to equip the security forces with GPRS devices, the EC settled for 3,000 digital cameras instead to monitor the polling process. It all resulted in one of the most successful elections ever in Bastar, with polling exceeding 70 percent in most places except Konta and Bijapur.
Kujur feels the systematic voter education and electoral participation (SVEEP) plan, which egged people to cast their votes, also worked well. This proved more penetrative than Maoist leader Ramanna’s appeal to Bastar voters to boycott the election. There was also an attempt to instil fear in voters through threats like “chopping off fingers” though most Naxal sympathisers deny that such a threat was ever issued.
Several observers also believe that the Maoists consciously decided not to disrupt the electoral process on their own primarily because of two reasons. One, they would have been cagey about more bad publicity, following the Jeeram massacre. Ramanna had, in an unprecedented move in September, gone to the extent of publicly accepting the “mistake” of killing Congress leader Nand Kumar Patel and his son. On hindsight, it can now be seen as an olive branch aimed at not gathering more bad publicity. The other obvious reason of Maoist inactivity during election is the heavy deployment of paramilitary forces.
Sidhu, GP Singh and Ramniwas, however, feel a little self-conscious in taking credit beyond a point. “After all, it’s part of our sworn duty,” says Sidhu. The election results will prove different things to different people, but what every political party has put on record is that it has been the most fair election in Chhattisgarh’s short electoral history.