CHHATTISGARH: HAND SIGNALS
The Congress gameplan seems to be working, but is the state leadership up to taking down titan Raman Singh?
After the exit of former chief minister Ajit Jogi, the Congress poll strategy leans on three state biggies—leader of the opposition T.S. Singhdeo, state Congress chief Bhupesh Baghel and ex-minister Charan Das Mahant. Will their combined political heft be enough to wrest the state from the BJP’s three-time chief minister Raman Singh?
The Congress hopes to make major gains in north Chhattisgarh, where it now holds 7 of the 14 seats in the 90-member assembly. It is also where Jogi’s Janta Congress ChhattisgarhBSP combine hasn’t found traction. Singhdeo, the Surguja royals scion who is known to be close to Rahul Gandhi, is leading the campaign here. And he seems confident: “Past elections show that the combined Congress-BJP vote share is between 73 and 81 per cent. This won’t change; the others (JCC-BSP) will vie for the remaining vote.”
To contain any attrition brought on by Jogi’s exit, the Congress has been reaching out to his Satnami community. It has even managed to induct Baldas, an influential Satnami leader, who helped the BJP win 9 of the 10 Scheduled Caste seats in the 2013 polls. The party has also fielded a number of Satnami candidates, hoping to gain the community’s trust.
In the poll manifesto (which he helped draft), Singhdeo has promised a universal food scheme and farm loan waiver. The Congress is also holding out a Rs 2,500 procurement price per quintal for paddy against the Rs 2,050 offered by the BJP government. This has prompted scores of farmers to hold onto their paddy harvest and farm loan dues are also at an all-time high, an indication that the Congress campaign is having an impact. The party is also promising to increase subsidised rice rations from 25 to 35 kg per family, irrespective of caste.
“Dr Raman Singh will be our first beneficiary,” Singhdeo tells voters at a poll meeting in Sardhapaath in the Jashpur constituency.
While Singhdeo runs a gruelling campaign, Baghel has been grappling with organisational issues such as setting up a sub-booth level network with one Congress worker connecting with 30 to 100 voters. Baghel’s rise in the party is widely attributed to his aggressive rebuttals to both Jogi (his one-time boss) and chief minister Singh.
The Congress has also not named a chief ministerial candidate—which appears to be working here. With no clear leader, workers are enthusiastically driving the campaign irrespective of their affiliations within. So while voters in north Chhattisgarh believe Singhdeo will be CM, the Kurmi community (10 per cent of the electorate) are convinced it will be Baghel. Another man in contention is Tamradhwaj Sahu, a low-profile Congressman who gave the party its only win in the 2014 Lok Sabha polls. In addition, he’s been chairman of the Congress’s OBC wing and a member of the Congress Working Committee. His nomination as the candidate from the Durg Rural segment has created a buzz amid the numerically significant (25-30 per cent) Sahu community.
The ‘old order’ within the Chhattisgarh Congress is represented by Mahant, who has been a minister in the Digvijaya Singh government in Madhya Pradesh as well as a Union minister during UPA-II. He is also viewed as a possible choice as CM. But on the sidelines of the smooth poll campaign, there is also talk of trouble. Insiders describe much friction between Baghel and P.L. Punia, the AICC state in-charge. There are also whispers about a ‘CD’ where Baghel is heard targeting other Congress leaders. But with most leaders completely occupied with their individual campaigns, there is little time left to try and fix opponents.
ON TARGET Rahul Gandhi with state leaders T.S. Singhdeo and Bhupesh Baghel to his left at a ‘kisan hunkar’ rally in Raipur