Behind the BJP’s victory in Chhattisgarh is the little-known Satnam Sena of Dalit priests, which was instrumental in ensuring the party’s win in at least 19 constituencies, including nine reserved seats. Clad in white robes, these priests used choppers to campaign in Congress strongholds, cutting into the party’s Dalit votes.
The functioning of this priestly Sena was as intriguing as its birth.
Months before polls, the BJP government angered the Scheduled Caste (SC) community by reducing their quota in government jobs from 16 per cent to 12 per cent, while increasing the quota for Other Backward Classes (OBCs). With the Satnamis, who constitute a large portion of the SC population in the state, being traditional Congress voters, the BJP seemed to be in trouble. Chhattisgarh has around 12 lakh SC voters who decide the results in about 40 seats.
But on September 13, just two months before the polls, a priestly family of the Satnami Samaj cobbled together a political party and got it registered as the Satnam Sena. The officiating priest, Guru Bal Das, became the party’s president. Reportedly fronted by the BJP, the Sena announced candidates for both general and SC seats in the central plains, the only area where the Congress had led in 2008 and home to prominent families like the Jogis, Shuklas and Chaubeys. The Congress had further consolidated its position by winning municipal polls in the area since 2008, and was widely expected to gain here.
The bipolar contest suddenly became triangular, and although the Satnam Sena did not win any seat, it effectively spoiled the Congress’s chances. The party contested at least 15 general seats, of which the BJP won 10 — Bilaspur, Takhatpur, Lormi, Kavardha, Pandariya, Bemetara, Saja, Bhatapara, Rajim and Rajnandgaon.
Moreover, even as the BJP ceded tribal Bastar and Sarguja where it was in a direct fight with the Congress, it won nine SC seats from where the Satnam Sena had either fielded candidates or supported independents.
Congress stalwarts like Mohammad Akbar, Ravindra Chaubey and Dharamjit Singh lost from seats where the Satnam Sena contested. The late V C Shukla’s nephew Amitesh Shukla also lost from the family’s stronghold of Rajim.
Das’s son, Somesh Baba, a prominent priest, was the party’s candidate in Lormi, a general seat which was considered the bastion of Congress stalwart Dharamjit Singh. Dharamjit Singh lost to BJP’s Tokhan Sahu by 6,241 votes.