Kanker/Bhanupratappur (Chhattisgarh): Having defied boycott calls by Naxals in the first phase of the Lok Sabha elections on 11 April, voters of three constituencies in Chhattisgarh, including the Naxal-affected areas of Kanker and Rajnandgaon, will exercise their franchise in the second phase of polling on Thursday. The other constituency is Mahasamund.
In the first phase, the Bastar Lok Sabha constituency saw 56% voter turnout. Kanker in north Bastar faces a similar challenge from left-wing extremism. Armed Naxal cadres, whose ranks have swollen in the region, have already warned people against voting. People in the tribal-dominated region, however, are showing more resilience than the Naxals may have anticipated.
“We are not afraid of anyone," said Ramesh Kumar, a mechanic from Bhanupratappur, a Naxal stronghold. “Yes, they (Naxals) come every now and then, they threaten to kill us or carry out blasts if we vote or support any political party. But if we don’t vote, then we also have no right to expect change. There are lots of problems here and we have the right to demand change."
The Bharatiya Janata Party’s (BJP) Mohan Mandavi is up against the Congress’ Biresh Thakur in Kanker.
In Rajnandgaon, BJP has fielded Santosh Pandey, replacing Abhishek Singh, the current member of Parliament and son of former chief minister Raman Singh. Pandey will contest against Bhola Ram Sahu of the Congress.
In Mahasamund, Chunni Lal Sahu of BJP is up against the Congress’ Dhanendra Sahu.
Despite sporadic Naxal violence in Kanker, local people are pinning their hopes on a government that can usher in change.
For BJP, which is influential across Kanker, Rajnandgaon and Mahasamund, the recently concluded assembly elections were a litmus test. Today, even as the Congress claims to have fulfilled 18 out of 36 election promises in the state, growing religious polarization, unemployment and a flagging education system have led to growing political dissent.
“It is only to our credit that we try and maintain religious harmony here. But at every given opportunity, there are tensions between Hindus and Muslims, and things can get out of control very fast. But we tell people not to get influenced by politics," said Shahid Khan, a transport contractor from Kanker. “We don’t care who comes to power. We had BJP for 15 years in the state and if (Narendra) Modi at the centre can work his magic and give us peace, stable jobs and our children better school and college education, he will have our vote."
While the people have complained about the lack of jobs in the state, as well as the condition of schools and colleges, a senior state government official, on condition of anonymity, said that Chhattisgarh had “earned a bad name because of Naxal violence". “No teachers or doctors want to come here and practise. Jobs can’t be created overnight, and the state can only work steadily towards it," he added.
In the 2014 Lok Sabha polls, Kanker saw 70.24% voter turnout, Mahasamund 74.63% and Rajnandgaon 74.20%.