Saurabh Sharma | Nov 12, 2018 | 9 min read
First phase records 18% less voter turnout than 2013 on sensitive red corridor seats in Chhattisgarh
Booths with ‘nil vote’ record won over with force, but fear of Naxals, resentment with politicians keep many in Bastar away from gun-controlled elections
Raipur: The 18 seats that went to polls in first phase of election to the Chhattisgarh Assembly saw a drop of more than 18% in voter turnout, despite all out efforts of the state and Central governments to motivate more and more tribals to vote in the red corridor areas of the state.
The press note released by the Chief Election Officer, Chhattisgarh, Subrat Sahu on Monday evening tallied the the voter turnout at 10 ‘highly sensitive’ constituencies where voting was conducted between 7am and 3pm at 52% and that at the remaining eight constituencies at 70.08%. The average voting percentage for the first phase of 2018 assembly elections in the state stood at 60.49%, against the 78.8% voter turnout recorded in these 18 constituencies in 2013 assembly elections.
Several factors, including the threat to boycott election by the Maoists and the resentment with both, the Congress and the BJP legislators, seem to have contributed to this fall in voter numbers. The prime concern for the election authorities was to avoid any loss of life in the polling process in the aftermath of several brazen attacks conducted by Maoists in the run up to the first phase of polls. The Maoist resistance was such that two encounters broke out even on polling day-- in Padema area of Bijapur and in Sukma -- resulting in deaths of six Maoists and leaving five security personnel injured, who had to be airlifted to Jagdalpur. An IED blast was triggered targeting security forces near a polling booth in Tumakpal-Nayanar road in Katekalyan area but no injuries were reported. IED devices were found near polling booths at a couple of other locations in Bijapur and Bhanupratappur in Kanker and were diffused by bomb disposal squads.
Total boycott in some areas
Officials from the Election Commission said the electorate boycotted election in some of the interior areas of Kanker and Sukma districts. “The list is being prepared and we are waiting for the polling parties to return. One such village where the villagers boycotted the voting is Aamapani in Kanker. The villagers there were angry for shifting their polling booth to Thema. As per initial information, our officers tried a lot to convince them but no one from the village turned up to vote,” said an election observer who had come from Lucknow to Kanker on election duty. He did not wish to be named.
Congress candidate from Rajnandgaon who is challenging the incumbent Chief Minister Raman Singh in his home turf, Karuna Shukla, said the low voter turnout reflects failure of the state machinery. “In the early hours (Monday), there were reports that EVMs malfunctioned at many places and this was where the TV channels could reach, but what about the interior areas where media could not reach? We got information that voting started after 10.00 am at many places. So, all these factors could be responsible for the fall in voter turnout,” Shukla said.
BJP candidate from Jagdalpur, Santosh Kumar Bafna, however, refused to accept that the voter turnout has gone down, claiming the “actual” turnout would be higher. “Let polling parties who are still inside the jungle return and then the election commission will be able to compile the exact data. It will be too early to comment on it,” Bafna said.
The constituencies that recorded largest downfall in voter turnout compared to figures from last assembly elections were Antagarh (33.75% low voter turnout than 2013), Narayanpur (30.38%), Kondagaon (22.44%), Bhanupratappur (22.26%) and Keshkal (20.19%). Ironically, none of the 18 constituencies that went to polls in first phase registered a higher voter turnout than the 2013 elections, rendering as baseless the government’s argument in favour of increasing paramilitary presence in the red corridor region to include more tribals in the democratic set up.
Security forces were, however, successful in getting votes polled in polling booths set up at Bhejji, Kistaram and Banda in Konta AC, Sukma district, where zero votes were cast in the 2013 assembly elections. In 2013, 53 polling booths spread across Sukma, Bijapur and Dantewada in Bastar division had registered zero votes.
The difference between voter turnout compared to last elections was least at 2.19% in Konta constituency, which saw 46.19% voter turnout this year. The fall from last year in voter turnout was high in other constituencies as well, such as Kanker (17.14%), Dongargaon(14.27%), Bastar(13.95%), Khairagarh (14.26%), Dantewada (13.03%), Khujji (13.01%) and Mohla Manpur (13.52%).
A CRPF commandant from the CoBRA unit posted in Chitrakot, seeking anonymity, said the priority of the armed forces was to ensure that no life is lost during the election process. “It was definitely a challenging task to to ensure peaceful voting without the loss of any life, be it a civilian or a security personnel. We did our best and few of our jawans have sustained injuries also, but the force is happy with the outcome as voting also happened in those places where it could not happen in the last term,” the CRPF official said.
More challenging was to bring people out to vote, the official said. “We had to convince the people that there is adequate number of forces on the ground to guard them but they were still hesitant to step out. They only came out watching others,” he added.
The district collectors and returning officers in respective constituencies declined to comment on the lower voting percentage recorded this year, saying the EC would be able to answer these queries.
Mangal Kunjam, an actor who played the role of a journalist in Newton, a Hindi film depicting the challenges in conducting free and fair voting at a booth located in a Naxal affected area, did not cast his vote out of fear of Naxals. A resident of Kiroli village in Kirandul region of naxal hit Dantewada district, Kunjam said that only a couple of people dared to vote in his village due to the boycott called by Naxals. “The polling party took a couple of voters with them to the booth in amid heavy security. This was done to avoid nil voting like it happened in the last elections,” the 27-year-old said.
Former Naxal Mainuram, 40, who took up masonry after surrendering five years ago and goes by his first name, voted in Narayanpur along with his wife, Rajbati. Voting is everyone’s right and one should practice it for better government, he believes now. “There is a lot of security force to guard us from Naxals and other anti-national forces. I am not scared of anyone because of police and security forces and others should also come out to exercise their franchise,” Mainuram said while speaking to media after casting his vote.
Ram Chandra Baghel, 45, a voter from the Lohandiguda village in Chitrakot AC, who did not vote because he wants “to live”, said only five out of 400 voters in his village exercised their franchise. “Those five persons who went to vote are government employees, like school teachers and others, who were forced to vote and we know that they were also scared,” he said, adding that the Naxals had dropped parcha (pamphlet) in his village the night before elections warning them not to participate in voting process.
“I did not vote because I want to live. The naxals had threatened us of dire consequences and I want to live with my family. What is kept in taking risk. Life is above everything,” Baghel said.
Those who voted in Lohandiguda were not untouched by the fear. Kamal Madia, 28, one of the five voters from the village said he is leaving the village for few days because he can be punished by the Left Wing Extremists. “I do not want my finger to be chopped. I regret voting and I do not know why I did it. I am going to Bastar for few days till the time this ink fades,” said a frowning Madia, covering his inked finger.
Low turnout = fair polling?
The Election Commission said that the total electorate size in first phase of polls to 18 constituencies was 31,80,014, of which 16,22,492 were females, 15,57,435 were males and 87 third gender. The polling happened on 4341 polling booths.
Voting began at 7am and closed by 3pm in the 10 ‘highly sensitive’ constituencies -- Mohla-Manpur, Antagarh, Bhanupratappur, Kanker, Keshkal, Kondagaon, Narayanpur, Dantewada, Bijapur and Konta, while it was conducted between 8am and 5pm in the other eight constituencies -- Khairgarh, Dongargarh, Rajnandgaon, Dongargaon, Khujji, Bastar, Jagdalpur and Chitrakot.
Dr Vikram Singh, an expert on political affairs in Chhattisgarh, said the higher voting percentage in Bastar division in 2013 was due to the sympathy Congress gained among the people after the Jhiram Ghati attack, in which 12 Congress leaders were killed. “The voting percentage in 2013 was high because at that time the Jhiram [Ghati] incident had happened, where several people including Congress leaders were killed. That was a mobilizing factor then, but there was nothing such this time,” said Singh, adding that another factor that could have kept voters away would be the intense anti-election campaign by Naxals, as they carried out at least 15 big and small attacks in the region in the run up to polls.
The Jhiram Ghati attack of May 25, 2013 remains one of the deadliest Maoist attacks in recent past, which took 27 lives, including those of Congress leaders Nand Kumar Patel, Vidya Charan Shukla and Mahendra Karma, who was brutally beaten, stabbed and sprayed by bullets by the Maoists. Repeating several candidates by political parties in these 18 seats was another reason behind low excitement among the electorate, according to Dr Singh.
Low voter turnout could also be a sign of fair polling, according to Raipur-based political commentator Ashok Tomar. “Chances of rigging increase when the voter turnout is higher, but this time it is very much clear that there was fair voting,” Tomar said. Naxals’ threats of chopping off the fingers of those who vote may have also had an impact on number of people turning out to vote, he added.
Avg- 60.49% 78.8%
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