Exactly a month ago, Indian intelligence picked up news about a bespectacled man approaching his seventies — salt fast edging out pepper in his hair — delivering a speech at Abujmaad of Narayanpur district in Chhattisgarh’s Bastar.
'Abuj' stands for unknown and ‘maad’ for hill in Halvi, spoken by local tribals. But the man is far from unknown to India’s security establishment and his speech was not exactly one meant to get votes in the state elections on Monday.
Of average height and build, the man tried to persuade villagers not to vote and partake in the ritual of electing another “brutal, corrupt, anti-people, anti-poor, anti-tribal government”.
Ganapathy, alias Muppalla Lakshmana Rao, the supreme commander of India’s most lethal insurgency, is in the Maoist movement’s nerve-centre Bastar as Chhattisgarh goes to polls on Monday, believe local police and intelligence officers. He carries a combined reward of Rs. 45-50 lakh on his head and moves with an inner security ring of 25 elite Maoist commandos.
Not for nothing is the security deployment before the elections warlike. There are close to 100,000 fully-armed security personnel on the ground — 564 paramilitary companies (about a 100 people in each), in addition to the 200 companies normally posted here, and about 20,000 state police officials.
But under the cold blanket of security lies a smouldering bed of violence. On Saturday morning, the state police had an encounter with armed Maoist rebels near Dantewada. Polling in 167 booths has been relocated to safer areas, requiring many villagers to walk 30 or 40 km to cast their vote. About 50% areas have not seen any electioneering.
“The Maoists used to visit our village every week, but for about four months they haven’t come because of the troop presence,” said a primary school teacher in a village 12km from Sukhma town, requesting anonymity so that the rebels don’t target him. “But voting will be a hazard. Even if they don’t stop us on the polling day, I’m sure they will come back and demand an explanation once the troops move out.”
“The number of incidents and casualties has gone down, but they may try a high-visibility attack around the elections,” said Chhattisgarh chief minister Raman Singh.
Polling in about 1,000 booths will be videotaped to ensure fairness. The state’s borders with Andhra Pradesh, Maharashtra and Odisha have been sealed, although there are still porous spots from where senior Maoist commanders like Ganapathy have sneaked in.
“Maoists will try their best to leave their signature on the elections,” said an intelligence officer. “They fear that if they are seen as weak in their bastion Bastar, a wrong message will go out.”