The young king of Bastar, Kamal Chandra Bhanj Deo, is in two minds about the Chhattisgarh Assembly elections towards the end of the year — to opt for the royal strategy of 1957 or of 1962.
In 1957, Mr. Deo’s grand uncle, the legendary Pravir Chandra Bhanj Deo, supported the Congress and in 1962, he hand-picked tribal people as independent candidates, who defeated the Congress in nine of 10 the seatsin Bastar.
Whether the present king would support a coalition or put up his own independent candidates is being debated both in the palace and in villages. Whatever the strategy is, the Bhanj Deos will be participating in the elections after 51 years.
Bastar, or south Chhattisgarh, has seven districts and 12 Assembly constituencies. In the last two elections, the only two after the formation of Chhattisgarh, the region conclusively voted for the Bharatiya Janata Party — in 2008, the party won 11 12 seats and in 2003, it captured 10.
In the rest of the State, on both occasions, the BJP and the Congress almost had an equal share of seats. “If we get a tiny percentage of votes, we may play a role,” said the 28-year-old U.K.-bred Kamal Chandra. Lack of money and machinery to match political adversaries has compelled the family to rely solely upon “people’s love”, the king confessed.
His electoral ambition is disquieting for the Congress and the BJP and both are keen to woo him. He has been offered a ticket by both, say informed sources. While most of the politicians in Bastar are tight-lipped about the king’s political prospects, veteran politician Ajit Jogi delivered a guarded warning: “[The] Former ruling family has some support in backward areas, whether it could convert into votes or not is uncertain.” There is a second opinion as well. “The third generation after Independence — the dominant voters — gives a damn to royals, their time is over,” said Pratap Agrawal, a septuagenarian lawyer from Jagdalpur.
In 1966, Pravir Chandra, whose ancestors — the Kakatiyas — came to Bastar from Warangal in Andhra Pradesh some 600 years ago, was shot dead by the police for allegedly leading a tribal mob against the state. A year before, in his autobiography I Pravir — The Adivasi God, the king dismissed the Congress as a party of colonisers. “… this government’s [of the Congress] planning is modernisation and industrialisation plus contractors welfare. This conspiracy [against tribal people] must end … the Congress has failed miserably to usher in an equitable and egalitarian order and should be done away with lock, stock and barrel,” he wrote.
There are government and press reports to suggest that he declared a “war against the state” along with tribal people and thus “needed to be disciplined”.
“The enigmatic king was the ancestor of today’s Telugu-speaking Maoists,” said a retired bureaucrat.
The support for Pravir Chandra among the tribal people was unmistakable. The Dandakaranya Samachar, a six-decade-old newspaper, wrote just before the king’s assassination that though “… stripped [by the government] of all privileges of a ruler, he is acknowledged still as their Raja [king] … loved as their own, whose words are their law.”
At the time of this death on March 26 1966, Pravir Chandra was preparing for the 1967 election. The Dandakaranya Samachar quoted the then district magistrate of Bastar a day after the king’s death as saying that armed adivasis of the palace attacked the police and the police had to open fire presumably in self defence. “… 12 dead bodies of adivasis … sent for post-mortem … unconfirmed report states, it [the casualty figure) is a bigger number.” The tradition seems to be continuing in Bastar.
Since his demise, Pravir Chandra has entered the Bastar folklore for challenging the “mighty” Indian state with bow and arrows. But will it work in elections after five decades? “Adivasis’ adoration [for Pravir Chandra] would definitely help the royal family if they fight alone,” said Bastar art historian Niranjan Mahabar.
Kamal Chandra reiterated the legacy, saying his primary objective was tribal welfare. “My aim is to stop the loot of mineral resources. Atrocities against tribal people should stop, standard of their lives should change before their property is grabbed,” he said emphatically.
However, it remains to be seen whether he would step into his grand uncle’s shoes or get sucked into a system mistrustful of its indigenous population.