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POLL POLITICS

Red herring

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Youth Congress activists during a silent protest against the Chhattisgarh Maoist attack outside the BJP office in Delhi.

With an eye on the forthcoming assembly elections in Chhattisgarh, both the Congress and BJP are busy trading charges instead of focusing on the Maoist challenge.

It's unfortunate, but not entirely surprising, that the Congress and the BJP have chosen to declare war on each other instead of the Naxalites who ambushed and killed 27 persons, including the top brass of the Congress state leadership, in Chhattisgarh last week. With crucial assembly elections coming up this winter in five states including Chhattisgarh, which could possibly impact next year's Lok Sabha polls, the politics of confrontation were bound to overwhelm the gravity of the challenge Left wing extremist groups pose to the Indian state today.

As investigators tried to piece together the horror of the May 25 attack in a remote village in Jagdalpur, Congress and BJP leaders, both at the state and national levels, were busy pointing fingers at each other. At the very least, the Congress blamed Raman Singh's BJP government in Raipur for security failure and inadequate protection for its state leaders who were on the campaign trail deep inside the forests of Bastar. But simultaneously, a whisper campaign accused the chief minister of having a "tacit understanding" with Naxal groups to win elections and perpetuate his rule in the state. Otherwise how could the BJP in the 2008 state election have won 11 of the 12 assembly seats in Bastar with record 80 per cent polling in dense jungle areas at a time when the Naxalites had called a poll boycott, Congress leaders asked.

Congress bloggers such as Amaresh Mishra tweeted endlessly, leveling no-holds-barred accusations against the BJP and RSS, virtually accusing them of having the party's state leadership bumped off for electoral advantage. Even a supposedly more responsible person like Congress general secretary Digvijaya Singh fanned the conspiracy theories with a blog suggesting there was something fishy about the manner in which the massacre was executed. Several questions "bothered" him, he wrote. "Why were they (the Maoists) looking for Nand Kumar Patel who was apparently not a supporter of Salwa Judum and had been consistently opposing police atrocities on tribals in Bastar? Why did they kill him and his son?" he demanded in his blog as he pointed out that the killers were not trying to hunt down Salwa Judum founder Mahendra Karma (who was incidentally also killed in the attack) as commonly believed. He claimed that they were after the state Congress chief, Nand Kumar Patel.

The BJP has hit back with a vicious whisper campaign of its own. While the party and its government in Chhattisgarh is clearly on the defensive because of the obvious security lapse that led to the killings, the saffron network in the state is buzzing with counter conspiracy theories which lay the blame for the bloodbath on factionalism in the Congress state unit. The saffron rumour mill has gone to town over the absence of former Congress chief minister Ajit Jogi and his son Amit from the Parivartan rally that the convoy of party leaders was going to address that fateful day in Jagdalpur. Jogi explained his absence later, saying that his helicopter could not land at the designated spot, but the muck is flying thick and fast as both sides trade charges that are as fanciful as they are ugly.

The Congress has upped the ante further by boycotting the all-party meeting called by Raman Singh, ironically at the suggestion of the central government which flew home secretary R K Singh down to Raipur for an urgent strategy meeting with the state security authorities. And Congress general secretary in charge of Chhattisgarh B K Hariprasad threatened darkly that the party would also not attend the special assembly session that Raman Singh has summoned. "We will go if the session is only for a homage. We don't want to discuss anything else with the state government, " says Hariprasad. He says there is nothing to discuss with a CM who had never sought the cooperation of the Congress in the past to tackle Naxal groups. "So why should we talk to him now?" asks Hariprasad.

While the Congress anger is understandable, the deepening political divide puts an obvious question mark over the efforts to flush out those responsible for the attack. It also makes a mockery of the sabre-rattling that is going on with both the state government and the Centre vowing to step up the offensive against the Naxalites. The Union home secretary is believed to have told state officials that the time has come to strike back hard. But with so much bad blood between the two parties, there doesn't seem to be much scope for cooperation or consultations.

Indeed, there is an ironic reversal of roles in the aftermath of the carnage. The Congress, led by the biggest advocate of the two-pronged approach, union minister Jairam Ramesh, has taken to describing the Naxalites as "terrorists' ' and slammed the door on future talks. Some Congress leaders have even called for a limited role for the army in the anti-Naxal operations. On the other hand, the BJP, which is known to favour a muscular approach, is talking of restraint with Raman Singh taking up the chorus for a two-pronged approach. "There is no need for the army to fight against Naxals in the Bastar area. That is not a battleground. A twopronged strategy of development and integrated action plan is needed to tackle the menace, " he was quoted as telling the media.

With such pendulum swings in mood, is it any wonder that the so-called red zone in India's tribal belt continues to expand? After four decades of Naxalite violence, neither the affected state governments nor the central government seem to have a long-term strategy to deal with the problem. Says political scientist Valerin Rodriguez of Jawaharlal Nehru University's centre for political studies, "The problem is huge. And I'm afraid the Indian state has largely shied away from engaging with it frontally. "

Law and order is a state subject under the Indian constitution. But it is clear that no one state can deal with Naxalism individually or without help from the central government. Perhaps the Maoists know that they are safe as long as the politics of confrontation persists. The Indian State will find it impossible to come up with a comprehensive unified anti-Naxal action plan in this atmosphere.

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