The weather was humid and warm in a village close to Bacheli in Maoist-affected Dantewada district, south Chhattisgarh. The Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) candidate Soni Sori wearing salwar suit and trademark party cap, ventured out for her election campaign in the forenoon to interact with tribals unfamiliar to her.
In a small gathering - nukkad sabha - she met the villagers, who stared at her with some of them were quick to comment -- “yet another politician has come to woo us”.
Unfazed by such surly response, Sori introduces herself. The villagers’ reactions instantly turn into curiosity as they inquired in local Gondi dialect, “We have heard about you but why have you come to us donning yourself like politician?”.
The query offered Sori, cited as Maoist sympathizer by state police, the opportunity to open-up a dialogue process with the tribals who came to attend her small public meet.
AAP candidate for Lok Sabha election from Bastar constiuency Soni Sori during her election campaign met the tribals who came from far flung villages to demand speedy trial of their relatives languishing in Dantewada jail. (HT photo/Ejaz Kaiser)
“In most of the remote villages facing such situation is quite normal for me. I begin narrating about myself and encourage them to speak out their issues and problems.
Such sharing facilitates gaining their confidence. Tribals are living in great pains and deprivations”, Sori told HT. She speaks in local Gondi, Halbi dialects and Hindi language depending upon the locations.
Villagers in tribal hamlets appeared familiar with her name but most of them saw Sori only during her door-to-door meeting and nukkad sabha election campaign along with the AAP supporters.
Sori, a resident of Jabeli village in Dantewada, was arrested in 2011 by Chhattisgarh police for allegedly acting as conduit in fund transfer from Essar Group to Maoists. She was granted permanent bail by Supreme Court in February this year. Six cases were registered against her and she is acquitted in four so far.
Moving inside the red zone, she has refused to take security for herself. “Why should I feel terrified to meet our own people who will vote”, she said but admitted that she faces threat more from the state government than the Maoists. The BJP and Congress candidates moves around in Maoist-affected areas with heavy security and in urban areas the personal guards remains with them.
To offer security to election campaign meets has been strictly instructed. “Even if the candidate has refused to have personal security, we have to deploy personnel for their poll meeting or rallies -- big or small, they attend and a gazetted rank officer monitors this. The candidates will have to tell us in advance about their movement is affected areas or holding any public meet”, the Bastar collector and returning officer Ankit Anand told HT.
Sori’s candidature has aroused "enthusiasm" among AAP members. Through online fund raising the donations have already started pouring in for her. “AAP supporters are our strength. Sori has declared she does not even have Rs 500 in her bank account”, the AAP state coordinator Sanket Thakur, who was camping in Bastar, told HT.
The BJP and Congress shrug off her presence in poll fray as the "small fry". “AAP is non-entity among tribals and will have no effect on us”, the BJP leader Kedar Kashyap stated. The Congress too see her as no challenge.
“AAP has so far enrolled over thirty thousand, mostly tribals, as members in Bastar. Only the time will tell them who emerges as strong contender”, Thakur retorted.