CHHATTISGARH: CONG MAY SPRING A SURPRISE
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.