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Don’t Believe The Media, Congress Stands A Good Chance Of Winning Chhattisgarh This Time

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By Sajjan Kumar

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

Since the creation of Chhattisgarh in 2000, BJP under the leadership of Raman Singh has ruled the state since 2003, barring first three years when Ajit Jogi-led Congress was at the helm. After that, the factionalism of 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 2008 state Assembly election helped BJP return to power for the next consecutive term.

However, by 2013, Nand Kumar Patel-led Congress showed the signs of revival in the state. Congress not only presented a united face by bringing erstwhile estranged leaders like Vidya Charan Shukla, who was instrumental in Congress’ 2003 defeat but also launched a well-organised ‘Parivartan Yatra’ which was getting a popular response in different parts of the state. However, during the fourth phase of the ‘yatra’, on May 25, 2013, entire state Congress leadership was ambushed and brutally killed by the Naxalites in Jheeram valley in Bastar while they were travelling from Jagdalpur to Sukma, thereby bringing state Congress into a serious leadership crisis. The remaining state Congress leaders like Ajit Jogi and Charan Das Mahant were perceived more interested in becoming Chief Minister rather than leading the party to the victory. Consequently, BJP under Raman Singh got a third consecutive term in 2013.

Much has changed for state Congress in the past five years. Ajit Jogi has resigned from Congress and floated a new party, ‘Janata Congress Chhattisgarh’, and Bhupesh Baghel, a well-known Jogi critic, is the state president of the grand old party. Further, the infighting among the top state Congress leaders such as Bhupesh Baghel, TS Singhdeo, Charandas Mahant, Tamradhwaj Sahu etc., as of now seems less intense.

Besides, in spite of the reports suggesting the internal bickering over factional ticket distribution at many Assembly constituencies, Congress’ ticket distribution appears better managed than that of BJP, wherein the reports of internal factionalism are reportedly more intense.

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

Firstly, fieldwork by the author revealed that majority of the tribal voters in Bastar and Sarguja are not enthused by the free ‘rice scheme’ when the price rise and unemployment is making their everyday life precarious. For instance, Samnath Ghoomar, belonging to Halba tribe at Badetumnaar village near Geedam in Dantewada district, opined that “Raman Singh used to be called as Chaval wale Baba for his Rs.1 rice Scheme. However, the factors like price rise and unemployment have got us disillusioned with him. There is an undercurrent for change this time.” This subtle undercurrent sentiment for change was more intense than the pro-continuity preference, and the same was visible in the northern part of the state, especially among the tribal voters.

Similar sentiments were expressed by a Gond tribe member, Ramnath Porte at Tara village near Premnagar in Ambikapur district. “We have been thinking of change this time. As of now, we are not sure who we would vote for, but would for change nevertheless. In the final moment, we may vote for Hand (Congress party symbol),” he said.

Thus, it seems that the factors like anti-incumbency, price-rise and unemployment have caused an undercurrent for pro-Congress change among the majority of the tribal electorates, even though the election seems completely waveless.

Secondly, contrary to the much-hyped argument of Ajit Jogi-Mayavati factor damaging the Congress by dividing party’s potential Dalit vote, as has been shown by leading election surveys, the fundamental electoral facts of the state needs a scrutiny. In fact, there is reasonable basis to argue that 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 primarily limited just to the select constituencies in two regions, namely, Bilaspur and Janjgir Chapa where Dalit population accounts for 21% and 26% respectively. 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 Congress it’s BJP which is likely to be damaged by the third front as 9 out of 10 assembly seats reserved for the SCs is with 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 BJP more by fielding its rebel as candidates.

Thirdly, there seems to be a strange combination of electoral fatigue along with a sentiment for change among the general section of electorates in the state. The fatigue is with the continuance of 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, a complete absence of a creative electoral narrative by BJP doesn’t indicate the fighting spirit on the part of the ruling party. All these factors are likely to place Congress as the default beneficiary in the ensuing election.

About the author: Sajjan Kumar has a PhD in Political Science from JNU. He is associated with Peoples Pulse, a Hyderabad based research institution specialising in fieldwork-based political studies.

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