CH­HAT­TIS­GARH: HAND SIG­NALS

The Congress game­plan seems to be work­ing, but is the state lead­er­ship up to tak­ing down ti­tan Ra­man Singh?

India Today - - STATES - By Rahul Noronha

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.

BHUPESH KESHARWANI

ON TAR­GET Rahul Gandhi with state lead­ers T.S. Singhdeo and Bhupesh Baghel to his left at a ‘kisan hunkar’ rally in Raipur

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