Saturday, March 21, 2009

It’s a season of tactical retreat

R Prithvi RajFirst Published : 22 Mar 2009 11:35:00 PM ISTLast Updated : 21 Mar 2009 09:59:16 PM IST

This summer in Andhra Pradesh, the woods of the Eastern Ghats and the dense jungles of North Telangana will probably remain quiet except for the usual jungle sounds as villagers prepare for the forthcoming elections. The guns could well be silent, with no sound of firing or battles between the Maoists and police to disturb the peace. Candidates of all parties may be able to campaign without the nagging fear of ambush by the Naxalites.

The reason is simple. A great many of the Maoist cadres, including senior leaders have been killed over the past four years in what have been described as encounters. This has forced them into a tactical retreat to protect themselves from their enemy — the police.

In 2004, the Maoists had a clear agenda: defeating chief minister N Chandrababu Naidu on whose life they made an unsuccessful attempt at Tirupati. Their anti-Naidu campaign was said to have benefitted Y S Rajasekhara Reddy, at least in pockets where the ultra-left cadre can influence the electorate.

This time around, the situation is different. The Maoists hate Rajasekhara Reddy. He had called them for talks in accordance with his pre-poll promise. The talks failed, but the information the police gathered during this process (this was the first time ever that top leaders came overground) was utilised to deal a severe blow to the movement through the systematic elimination of its functionaries.

About 300 of the cadre have been killed. The Maoists have struck back occasionally, as when they killed 35 elite Greyhound personnel on the Andhra Pradesh-Orissa border last year, but that was more a case of the policemen walking into a trap.

The Maoist presence is evident in 10 to 15 assembly constituencies that share a border with Orissa, 20 to 25 along the Chhattisgarh border and about 40 in the Telangana districts. It is a far cry from the past, when the Maoists ran a parallel government in 30 to 40 constituencies and were in a position even to decide the outcome of elections. This time, the tactical retreat into the deeper woods or migration to other states has meant that the Naxal strongholds have been rendered more or less sterile. The retreat was a result of rethinking in the party on the need to protect the remaining cadre. As a result, informed sources say that in this election the ultras might not be able to influence voters.

This time too, they have given a call for a poll boycott, but many see it as more of a ritual than anything else. The police do not rule out stray attacks on political functionaries but do not expect them to have any major impact on the elections.

“In our state,” says a senior police official, “the Maoists have lost heavily. Their presence is felt only in the Andhra-Orissa border area. They will play it safe this time. Maybe they will ask people in the remote areas not to vote for either the Congress or the TDP, but they are unlikely to do anything more.”

Another reason why the Maoists might let the elections go on as usual is the growing realisation that people don’t like the democratic process to be disturbed. “This is one of the reasons why no significant incidents of violence took place during the 2004 elections,” says Dr K Balagopal. A civil rights leader who has been a keen watcher of the Maoist movement from the 1980s, he says, “The situation might not be different this time either.”

But it cannot be construed from this that there will not be any violence at all. Police reports note the movement of cadres along the Karimnagar-Khammam-Warangal zone and indicate that they might resort to stray incidents of violence to remind the police that they are still out there. Corroborating the view, another analyst who happens to be a Maoist sympathiser feels they are likely to leave a skeletal presence in the areas where they used to be strong and might even target some Congressmen. “But their presence in good numbers is very unlikely,” he says.

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