The key to retaining or capturing power in Raipur depends largely on who wins in the Bastar division, which also goes by the Maoists’ description as the Red Zone
Chhattisgarh polls are again about its Chief Minister Raman Singh who for 15 years has dominated the state's scene. It is also about Singh's ‘frenemy’ leader Ajit Jogi and his never-ending battles with the Congress.
This time Jogi has formed a 'third front' by joining hands with Mayawati's Bahujan Samaj Party, which could be a big stumbling block for the Congress' bid to unseat Singh’s government. Jogi asserts he is fighting to end the BJP's rule but his detractors think that he is again bailing out Singh.
Nevertheless, a rejuvenated Congress under Rahul Gandhi hopes to cash in on what it sees as a strong anti-incumbency mood among the electorate. It thinks Jogi and his Janta Congress Chhattisgarh (JCC) are on the decline because their role is seen as spoilers preventing change.
A third factor that remains in the background, particularly in certain hill areas, is the role of Maoists whose waning influence is punctuated by intermittent deadly attacks. The Maoists are not just against the elections. They have put up posters, directly threatening people against voting for the BJP.
Chhattisgarh has an assembly of 91 seats. It goes to poll on November 12 when the first phase of voting will take place for 18 seats, 12 of which are located in the Naxalite-hit Bastar region and Rajnandgaon. The second phase, which will cover the remaining seats, will take place on November 20.
Singh admits that it is not easy for him and the BJP. However, he feels that the people will still vote for his leadership and party because they have seen changes under his tenure. He sees disarray in the Congress camp though he won't treat Jogi's threat to play the kingmaker lightly.
Jogi is not contesting the elections himself, preferring to campaign for his third front. Earlier, he had announced that he would contest against Singh in the latter's home constituency of Rajnandgaon. Later he backed out.
In the 2013 polls, the vote share between the BJP and the Congress was less than 1 percent. While the BJP got 41.04 percent of the total votes, the Congress polled 40.29 percent, but could only secure 39 assembly seats. The BJP got 49 seats and one each was won by the BSP and an independent.
The narrow margin of victory five years ago has made the Congress more hopeful of breaking the BJP's winning streak this time.
Jogi thinks that his alliance partner, the BSP, can eat into the votes of the BJP as well as the Congress in some pockets to give his front a decent number of seats for a key role in the post-poll scenario if the December 11 results present a hung house.
Interestingly, Singh, unlike the Congress, is not treating the Jogi-Mayawati alliance as a non-starter. "The BSP has a 4-5 percent votes and Jogi has 2-3 percent votes. If they add up to 5 or 6 percent votes, there will be impact on around 30 constituencies," he said in a recent interview to a media house.
The Congress is focusing sharply on the distress of farmers, claiming that days of Singh's magic as 'Chawal Baba' (the miracle maker who ensured rice to poor under a successful Public Distribution System) are over. The Congress also harps on what it calls the lack of development under the BJP, denouncing the latter's claim of vikas as all hype and no substance.
However, dismissing the talk of tremendous voter fatigue working against him, Singh has held that "the anti-incumbency that is talked about now was said in 2013 as well. But people think that change has taken place in 15 years — a new Chhattisgarh is being built…"
All the parties concede that Singh's achievements cannot be dismissed as mere claims because the state has made considerable progress though some social indicators are still on the lower side.
Many leaders believe the key to retaining or capturing power in Raipur depends largely on who wins in the Bastar division, which also goes by the Maoists’ description as the Red Zone.
In the 2013 polls, the BJP won the elections but lost its hold in the region even as the Congress gained an upper hand. Of the 12 seats in the region, the Congress grabbed eight seats while the BJP mustered the remaining four seats. The saving grace for the BJP was that it won in other regions.
Since then, Singh's government has undertaken a lot of development work in Bastar. In his pre-election interviews, the CM has asserted that "there are some patches where they (Maoists) have influence, but the people of Bastar are with the government on the path of peace and development. The development work in Bastar is because of people's faith (in administration). We have laid roads in Dantewada, Sukma, Bijapur, (where earlier) people could not dream of it. Big interstate bridges have been built on Andhra Pradesh and Odisha border. This has changed the economy of the area. (There have been) medical colleges and irrigation… I believe the people are with us".
That brings us to the next question: will Raman Singh remain merely a leader of Chhattisgarh?
When Prime Minister Narendra Modi came to power in 2014, Singh’s name was among those who were thought to have been sounded out for eventually shifting to the Centre. Perhaps, once the Chhattisgarh polls are over, Singh may move away from the state politics — as the BJP needs to harness new faces and younger lot of leaders for its future in the state. This shift might happen after the 2019 Lok Sabha polls.
(Shekhar Iyer is former senior associate editor of Hindustan Times and political editor of Deccan Herald. Views are personal)For more Opinion pieces, click here.
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