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The Royal and the Rebel

In Chhattisgarh's murky campaign, a six-time legislator hangs up his boots, and a malcontent lawyer enters the fray.Chitrangada Choudhury reports.

india Updated: Nov 18, 2008 22:05 IST
Chitrangada Choudhury

Between 1967, when he fought and won, his first election, and today, Ramcharan Singh Deo, 79, has been a legislator six times.

Widely seen as the sole incorruptible MLA in a state where elections are overshadowed by horsetrading, and candidates blow crores of rupees in a a bid to win a seat, Deo could probably guarantee a seventh win for his Congress party, looking to regain power in Chhattisgarh.

But this former royal, whose family ruled the erstwhile principality of Korea in north Chhattisgarh, has decided to call it quits saying he cannot play by the changed rules. "I began my career in an age when ideas mattered in Indian elections. Today you need vast sums of money to bribe people all around, and I cannot do that. The trend started in 1998, and things have become impossible in our state now."

Speaking to HT after the newspaper reported on fellow Congress legislator Mahendra Karma distributing currency notes to tribals after an election speech, Deo cut a small and lonely figure, as he walked around the untended grounds of a sprawling and ruinous 80-room palace, built in the 1930s by his father, a ruler known for passing legislations specifying minimum wages, and introducing meals in schools to improve attendance.

The austere man who uses only two of these rooms said, "Karma was caught on camera. But every candidate is resorting to caste, liquor, and money, because they have neither the calibre nor any achievement to speak of."
In the neighbouring district of Sarguja, a malcontent lawyer cites the same muck in the state's public life to justify entering the electoral fray.

Amarnath Pandey, a burly criminal lawyer, is well known in his town of Ambikapur for taking on police excesses, in a state where several districts, including his, are roiled by a civil war between security forces and Naxalite extremists.

In a late-night meeting in a dimly-lit home on the outskirts of this town, Pandey, 44, was fretting with a small group of fellow campaigners from his Communist Party of India: "The BJP and Congress candidates (two former royals again) have more than a crore rupees to spend on this election. I do not have any money to give you, or the voters. I only have my track record and the promise to end corruption in this constituency."

Pandey, who as a member of the Peoples Union of Civil Liberties has undertaken fact-finding missions for into alleged extra-judicial killings by the police in his region told HT, "I am telling voters to elect me for a year. If they are not satisfied with my work, I will resign at the end of the year." Pandey's assets run into under Rs 2 lakh, and his election posters printed on cheap yellow paper hold out two promises for the 1.7 lakh voters in this town: A medical college for Ambikapur, and an end to police brutality.

If he does not win, Pandey said, he will go back to his legal practice, and continue to represent victims of police torture.

Deo meanwhile has begun taking his new life outside political power seriously by working on a development plan for the insurgency-ridden and lush southern district of Bastar. "It will revolve around forestry and horticulture, instead of this short-sighted intensive mining and displacement of tribals. I hope whichever party comes to power will take a serious look at it."