CH­HAT­TIS­GARH: CONG MAY SPRING A SUR­PRISE

Sunday Express - - OPINION - SA­J­JAN KU­MAR

As Ch­hat­tis­garh goes to the polls on Novem­ber 12 and 20 in two phases, the elec­toral dy­nam­ics of the state is still fluid and sub­ject to mul­ti­ple spec­u­la­tions. The state could be broadly di­vided into three dis­tinct sub-re­gions with po­lit­i­cal and de­mo­graphic speci­fici­ties, namely, Bastar re­gion in the south, Sar­guja re­gion in the north, and the cen­tral plains, com­pris­ing a to­tal of 27 districts. Largely, the south­ern and north­ern parts of the state, namely Bastar and Sar­guja re­gions re­spec­tively, are dom­i­nated by the trib­als while the cen­tral plain con­tain­ing Durg, Raipur and Bi­laspur divi­sion has size­able Dalit vot­ers.

Since the cre­ation of the state on Novem­ber 1, 2000, the BJP un­der the lead­er­ship of Ra­man Singh has ruled it, bar­ring the first three years, when the Con­gress led by Ajit Jogi ruled the state. There­after, fac­tion­al­ism in the Con­gress in the state couldn’t with­stand the clean im­age and set­tled lead­er­ship of in­cum­bent chief min­is­ter Ra­man Singh, whose pop­ulist ‘rice pol­i­tics’ just be­fore the 2008 Assem­bly elec­tion re­turned the BJP to power for an­other term.

How­ever, by 2013, there were signs of re­vival of the Con­gress in the state, when, un­der the lead­er­ship of Nand Ku­mar Patel, the Con­gress not only pre­sented a united face by bring­ing back es­tranged lead­ers like Vidya Cha­ran Shukla, who was in­stru­men- tal in the Con­gress’ 2003 de­feat, but also launched a well-or­ga­nized ‘Pari­var­tan Ya­tra’ which was get­ting a pop­u­lar re­sponse in dif­fer­ent parts of the state. How­ever, on May 25, 2013, in the fourth phase of the ‘Ya­tra’, the en­tire state Con­gress lead­er­ship was am­bushed and bru­tally killed by Nax­alites in Jheeram val­ley in Bastar dis­trict while they were trav­el­ling from Jag­dalpur to Sukma, thereby caus­ing a se­ri­ous cred­i­ble lead­er­ship cri­sis in the state Con­gress. The re­main­ing state Con­gress lead­ers, such as Ajit Jogi and Cha­ran Das Ma­hant, were per­ceived to be more in­ter­ested in be­com­ing chief min­is­ter rather than lead­ing the party to vic­tory, and con­se­quently the BJP un­der Ra­man Singh won a third con­sec­u­tive term in 2013.

Much has changed for the state Con­gress in the last five years, as Ajit Jogi has re­signed from the Con­gress and floated his own party, Janata Con­gress Ch­hatis­garh, Bhu­pesh Baghel, a known Jogi critic, is the pres­i­dent of the grand old party, and ap­par­ently the in­fight­ing among the top state Con­gress lead­ers, like Bhu­pesh Baghel, TS Singhdeo, Cha­ran­das Ma­hant, Tam­rad­hwaj Sahu etc. seems less in­tense as of now.

Be­sides, de­spite the in­ter­nal bick­er­ing in many Assem­bly con­stituen­cies on ac­count of fac­tional ticket dis­tri­bu­tion, the Con­gress’ ticket dis­tri­bu­tion ap­pears bet­ter man­aged than that of the BJP, where fac­tion­al­ism is re­port­edly more in­tense.

In this back­drop, there are three fac­tors which sug­gest that con­trary to pop­u­lar me­dia re­ports and sur­vey pre­dic­tions, the Con­gress is likely to have an edge over the BJP, the Ajit-JogiMayawati fac­tor not­with­stand­ing.

Firstly, field­work by the au­thor re- vealed that the ma­jor­ity of the tribal vot­ers in the south­ern and north­ern parts of the state, i.e. the Bastar and Sar­guja re­gions, are not en­thused by the free rice scheme when ris­ing prices and un­em­ploy­ment are mak­ing their ev­ery­day life pre­car­i­ous. For in­stance, Sam­nath Ghoomar, be­long­ing to the Halba tribe at Bade­tum­naar vil­lage, near Geedam in Dan­te­wada dis­trict, said: “Ra­man Singh used to be called ‘chaval wale baba’ for his `1 rice scheme. How­ever, fac­tors like price rise and un­em­ploy­ment have got us dis­il­lu­sioned with him. There is an un­der­cur­rent for change this time.” This un­der­cur­rent of sen­ti­ment for change is more in­tense than the pro­con­ti­nu­ity pref­er­ence, and the same was vis­i­ble in the north­ern part of the state, es­pe­cially among tribal vot­ers. As Ram­nath Porte, a mem­ber of the Gond tribe in Tara vil­lage, near Prem­na­gar in Am­bika­pur dis­trict said: “We have been think­ing of change this time. As of now we are not sure who we would vote for, but would vote for change nev­er­the­less. In the fi­nal mo­ment we may vote for Hand.” Thus, it seems that fac­tors like anti-in­cum­bency, price rise and un­em­ploy­ment have caused an un­der­cur­rent for pro-Con­gress change among the ma­jor­ity of the tribal elec­torate, even though the elec­tion seems com­pletely wave­less.

Se­condly, con­trary to the ar­gu­ment that the Ajit Jogi-Mayawati fac­tor will harm the Con­gress by di­vid­ing the party’s po­ten­tial Dalit vote share, as has been shown by lead­ing elec­tion sur­veys, the fun­da­men­tal elec­toral facts of the state need closer scru­tiny. There is rea­son­able ba­sis to ar­gue that the Con­gress may not be at the re­ceiv­ing end of the Ajit Jogi-Mayawati fac­tor, for the sim­ple rea­son that the in­flu­ence of the third front is lim­ited to select con­stituen­cies in two re­gions, namely, Bi­laspur and Jan­j­gir Chapa, where Dal­its ac­count for 21 per cent and 26 per cent, re­spec­tively, of the elec­torate. A fur­ther break­down of po­lit­i­cal de­mog­ra­phy sug­gests that bar­ring a cou­ple of seats, the al­liance would mat­ter mainly in con­stituen­cies re­served for the Sched­uled Castes. In this back­drop, a cur­sory look re­veals that more than the Con­gress it is the BJP which is likely to be dam­aged by the third front, as nine out of 10 Assem­bly seats re­served for the SCs are with the BJP as of now. Hence, there’s not much for the Con­gress to lose in these seats. Fur­ther, the field study also sug­gested that at many places the third front is dam­ag­ing the BJP more by field­ing its rebel as can­di­dates.

Thirdly, there seems to be a strange com­bi­na­tion of elec­toral fa­tigue and a de­sire for change in the gen­eral sec­tion of the elec­torate. The fa­tigue comes from the con­tin­u­ance of the BJP for the last 15 years, even if the same is not turn­ing into anger. Sim­i­larly, the pro-change sen­ti­ment is docile and sub­tle and hence one misses a strong pro-Con­gress or pro-third front ar­tic­u­la­tion. How­ever, the ab­sence of a cre­ative elec­toral nar­ra­tive by the BJP doesn’t in­di­cate the fight­ing spirit of the rul­ing party. All these fac­tors are likely to make the Con­gress the de­fault ben­e­fi­ciary in the elec­tion.

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