Run-up to Chhattisgarh elections: Anti-incumbency vs infighting

Chief Minister Raman Singh interacts with people during the ongoing Gram Suraj Abhiyan
In the scorching summer afternoon, Chhattisgarh Chief Minister Raman Singh’s chopper made a surprise landing in a field near Turijhar village of Mahasamund district about a fortnight ago. He disembarked the helicopter and trudged down the paddy field for a bumpy walk.

Singh reached the village crossing the rough field, mobilised villagers and discussed their grievances. The exercise was part of his ongoing Gram Suraj Abhiyan — a social audit the chief minister has carried out to assess the performance of the government by making surprise visits to villages and talking to people.

While the government campaign is going on, the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) has simultaneously launched “Jan Aashirvaad Yatra” to reach out to voters at the village level. The two campaigns are aimed at beating the three-term anti-incumbency and to propel party workers in election mode. The Assembly elections slated for November will be Singh’s toughest yet.
With a vote difference of only 0.72 per cent, the ruling BJP bagged about 92,000 votes more than the Congress to get additional 10 seats in the 90-member Assembly in Chhattisgarh. The ruling party has 49 members in the Assembly. The Congress had lost six seats by a margin of 1,500 or below.

“The margin is narrow and given the anti-incumbency, the vote share of the Congress is likely to increase by 3 to 4 per cent, which will make a big difference in the ouster of the BJP government,” said Ramesh Varylani, Chhattisgarh Pradesh Congress Committee general secretary. Party in-charge for the state P L Punia is working hard at the micro-level to win Chhattisgarh.

BJP leaders concede that all is not well with the government's performance and the party cadre. “There is anti-incumbency and party workers are resenting, but the situation will not be the same by October when our affiliated workers will plunge into action and the cadre will activate,” said senior BJP leader Subhash Rao. The two campaigns have "managed the crises 50 per cent,” he added.

The real crisis is in the Congress, said Rao. “In BJP, there is only resentment and not internal fight… but in the Congress, the tussle among leaders has spilt out in open,” he added. Congress’ Chhattisgarh unit President Bhupesh Baghel has failed to take other leaders into confidence.

The Congress realised that it could not aim for the maximum only with Baghel’s leadership. The party has anointed Charandas Mahant as election in-charge and gave different roles to senior leaders, including Motilal Vora, for the Chhattisgarh election. 

The BJP is eyeing differences in the opposition camp to ripe electoral benefits.

“Once the ticket distribution is over, in-fighting in the Congress will flare up to give an advantage to the BJP, which has an organisation to keep the cadre in discipline,” said Rao. But he apprehended if the “united” Congress is in the fray, it will not be an easy battle for the BJP.

Keeping senior leaders united and intact will certainly be a problem for the Congress as it has already lost one. The first chief minister of Chhattisgarh and former All India Congress Committee (AICC) spokesperson, Ajit Jogi, has quit and floated Chhattisgarh Janata Congress.

Jogi is likely to be the third wheel and may become the kingmaker. 

According to Rao, Jogi will eat into the Congress’ votes as satnamis — the community that rallies behind Jogi — have never been BJP voters. In 2013, the BJP had won 9 out of the 10 seats dominated by the community. Even a split in the minority votes will give an advantage to the BJP, he claimed.

The political observers, however, see it differently. “In the 2013 state election, Jogi was with the Congress and a section of voters did not support the party fearing he will become the chief minister,” said Virendra Pandey, a former minister. Now when Jogi is not in the Congress, the anti-Jogi votes will come to the Congress kitty that will scale up the party’s vote share, he said.

The Congress has accused Jogi of being hand-in-glove with Singh in a bid to prevent anti-Jogi voters polling for the saffron party.

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