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Podcast | Editor's Pick of the Day – Key things to know before Chhattisgarh polls

Chhattisgarh goes to the polls on November 12 and 20. Here is a quick look at seven of several factors that might end up playing a huge role when the people of Chhattisgarh go out to elect the 90-member assembly.

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Chief Minister Raman Singh-led BJP government has been in power in Chhattisgarh for fifteen years now. The principal opposition party is the Indian National Congress, which is banking on the anti-incumbency factor to wrest power from the BJP. The catch being the anti-incumbency factor is nearly not as strong in Chhattisgarh as it is in Madhya Pradesh and Rajasthan.

Hoping to put a spanner in the wheels of what would have been a two-horse race is a new alliance that us come up – former Congress leader (and former Chief Minister) Ajit Jogi and his Janata Congress Chhattisgarh (JCC) have joined hands with Mayawati-led Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP). This three-horse race will take place in two phases – Chhattisgarh goes to the polls on November 12 and 20.

Here is a quick look at seven of several factors that might end up playing a huge role when the people of Chhattisgarh go out to elect the 90-member assembly. My name is Rakesh, and you are listening to Moneycontrol.

  1. The fierce tussle between Lotus and Hand

The head-to-head between the two big parties in Chhattisgarh has been pretty consistent, and pretty intense, in the past two assembly elections. In 2008, the BJP held 50 of the 90 seats with a 40 percent voteshare, while the Congress walked away with 38 seats and 39 percent of the voteshare. 40 percent vs 39 percent! Cut to 2013, the BJP lost one of its 50 seats to settle at 49, while the Congress swelled by one to get to 39 seats. The voteshare between the Congress and the BJP? 41 percent-40 percent! Clearly, Chhattisgarh likes its drama. The BJP did however win the Lok Sabha elections there in dramatic majority. 10 of the 11 seats went to the BJP in 2014 along with 49.7 percent of the votes. The Congress settled for one seat, but did have a 39.1 percent voteshare. Clearly, this is a battle that the Congress has come too close to win in the past, and if that opinion poll is any indication, something it may just end up doing.

Mayawati’s Bahujan Samaj Party had secured a 4.27 percent vote share in the 2013 installment. And with Mayawati fronting a third front with Ajit Jogi, we might see a further dent in the voteshare enjoyed by the two big parties, and that is why she is our Factor Number Two.

2. Magic Sauce? The Mayawati Factor

The joining of hands of the JCC with the BSP is a crucial factor in deciding the way the dalit votebank votes. Ajit Jogi – about whom we will talk in just a bit – had led the Congress from the front in the previous election, but of course failed to gather the required number of seats. This time around though, Jogi plans to be kingmaker with the assistance of the BSP. The grand plans Jogi has can be gauged by the fact that his daughter-in-law Richa Jogi is contesting on a BSP ticket from Alaktara. The association was made almost cinematically – hush hush and away from the public glare. There were very few indications before the 20thSeptember announcement of the alliance that these talks were afoot. The Times of India had reported how a wheelchair-bound Jogi was transported via road, and the news of this potential alliance then kept away from the know of the Congress and the Samajwadi Party. The alliance with the JCC might be seen as a blow by the Congress which itself was hoping to team up with the BSP. Reports were rife that Congress’s Kamal Nath was in talks with the BSP to come to an agreement about seat-sharing.

Clearly, Mayawati is seen as someone who could move the needle in the state of Chhattisgarh. Some pundits are reading her alliance with the JCC as a double-rebuke to the Congress – one, joining hands with Jogi, a Congress rebel who floated his own outfit in 2016. Jogi had resigned after his son and then Congress legislator Amit Jogi was suspended following anti-party activities (more on this later); two, the alliance is also being seen as an assessment of Mayawati’s eye on 2019 – according to reports, the Congress was willing to give Mayawati five seats in Chhattisgarh (according to some other reports – ten seats), as opposed to the 33 that BSP will now fight on in its partnership with Jogi. (The CPI will contest in two seats.)

It is also being read by some as the weakness of the Congress to retain Mayawati, and indeed, indicative of a tussle already within the mahagathbandhan about the potential prime ministerial candidate. There are some reports afloat that the BJP might have “muscled her” into an alliance with the Janata Congress, considering that alliance would dent the Congress much more than it would the BJP.

Besides, on October 4, she made her displeasure with the Congress only too well known. Ever the shrewd politician, she had fuelled the idea of a mahagathbandhan – if not encouraging it, but certainly not discouraging it – only to walk away from it, but not without a few choice words. Calling the Congress "casteist and communalist", no different from how BJP was with her, she concluded her press conference on the October 4, by saying, “One thing I want to make absolutely clear. Considering the Congress' attitude, my party will not fight elections with the party at any cost. With this important announcement I am ending this media briefing.”

Saying the Congress had disrespected both the BSP and her by offering a pittance in terms of seat-share, she said she had been mistreated by the Congress much like her mentor Kanshi Ram was.

Sample: “Congress party ki galatfahmi ke saath-saath uska ahankar bhi ab sar chad kar bol raha hai… rassi jal gayee par ainthan abhi tak nahi gayee… waise toh Congress ki har mamle me abhi bhi dayaniye sthithi hai phir bhi Gujarat ki tarah abhi tak yeh galatphami bani hui hai…”

Mayawati’s quiet plot to form a Third Front alliance is no longer quiet – she has on her side now Deve Gowda’s JD(S) in Karnataka, Om Prakash Chautala’s INLD in Haryana, a proposed alliance with Akhilesh Yadav’s Samajwadi Party, and Ajit Singh’s RLD in Uttar Pradesh (Sanjay Singh, Firstpost). The JD(S) and INLD – and her own BSP – have proposed her name as a prime ministerial candidate in 2019. Her alliance with Janata Congress in Chhattisgarh is very much a move in this direction. Sanjay Singh, writing for Firstpost, remarked about the realpolitik Kanshi Ram’s protégé is displaying in that although she has blasted the Congress, there have not been overt attacks on the Gandhi family, something her partner in Chhattisgarh, Ajit Jogi, has also come out to say he would not indulge in. Singh writes, “That is designed to keep the support line open from the Congress, if need be and keep that one percent chance of a pre-poll alliance for 2019 alive, provided the Congress can bend to her whims.”

Mayawati has always had the uncanny knack of making what little she might have matter a whole lot more. In 1999, she pulled the rug from under the feet of the BJP – much to the surprise of the likes of Advani and Vajpayee – by withdrawing her five MPs at the last minute – the Vajpayee government lost the vote of confidence by one vote!

This time around, pre-2019, considering the clout she seems to wield and the many alliances the Elephant is making, you would be forgiven if you thought she had tens of MPs sitting in the Lok Sabha. The truth: none.

Cut to Chhattisgarh: In the last round in 2013, Mayawati’s party had contested in all 90 constituencies but had won just one seat. But in this case, it is useful to take a closer look at the fine print. BSP had polled 4.27 percent of the vote share, but its candidates had polled more than 10 percent of the vote share in 12 seats, and more than 20 percent in five.

Small numbers matter in Chhattisgarh. We discussed earlier that Chhattisgarh’s voteshare divide between the BJP and Congress has always been dramatically close. In 2013, the vote share difference between BJP and Congress was 1.7 percent. BSP’s 4.27 percent would have added considerable weightage to its alliance partner.

The BSP has consistently polled between 4 and 6 percent in the assembly elections in this region since 1984. Veteran journalist Neeraj Mishra, writing for The Wire, says, “There are 10 assembly constituencies in northern Chhattisgarh where the BSP polls between 15-30 percent and has won five of those ten seats at various times though not all of them at the same time. These seats are in Korba, Bilaspur, Sarguja and Raigarh districts. The BSP presently holds the Jaijaipur seat but stands a chance of winning Chandrapur, Pamgarh, Sakti, Baikunthpur, Janjgir and Navagarh.”

He adds, “The present alliance with the JCC allows the BSP to contest not only in its core seats but eight of the ten reserved SC seats and another 15 seats where it can piggy back over Jogi, particularly in the Durg, Mahasamund, Dhamtari and Gariyaband districts.

The BSP has neither anyone with Jogi’s charisma in its ranks nor anyone with Amit Jogi’s sharp analytical skills. It can thus can utilise both, contain damage and concentrate on its own strengths.”

The winning party needs 45 seats in Chhattisgarh, and Mayawati’s hope now is to not let either the Congress or the BJP get to the number, so that with her potentially 5-8 seat haul, she can get to do what she likes best – play kingmaker. Will it help Ajit Jogi this time around? Let’s now understand the situation of Ajit Jogi and how the numbers stack up for him.

3. Ramta Jogi – Return of the Prodigal Son?

The first Chief Minister of Chhattisgarh left the Congress in a swirl of controversy. As Atharva Pandit writes for Moneycontrol, “In 2003, Ajit Jogi was suspended from Congress after BJP released an audiotape in which he was allegedly heard offering money to buy BJP MLAs, with whom he intended to form an alternative government with Congress support.”

A similar scenario played out in 2015, with almost the same players too. Audiotapes accessed by media organisations suggested that Jogi and his son had “fixed” the Antagarh bypoll by making the Congress candidate withdraw and providing BJP with an easy win. The Indian Express had, at that time, published tapes of purported audio conversations between Jogi, his son Amit and Chief Minister Raman Singh’s son-in-law Puneet Gupta.

The publication had also published conversations allegedly between Manturam Pawar, the Congress candidate who withdrew from the bypolls, and two Jogi loyalists.

The conversations, allegedly between key players in the bypoll, showed financial inducements being offered to the Congress candidate for him to withdraw and provide a walkover to the BJP— which is what had happened, with the BJP candidate winning by over 50,000 votes against its sole opponent.

Pawar had later switched over to the BJP, while the fallout of the tapes had resulted in Amit Jogi being suspended for “anti-party” activities. It was then that Jogi left the Congress to float his own Janata Congress Chhattisgarh.

Sex, lies, and videotape may well be the mantra of Chhattisgarhi politics because soon after, Congress was hit by another major scandal when its state chief Bhupesh Baghel was sent to jail by a special CBI court after he was accused of circulating a “sex CD” showing Rajesh Munat, the state’s minister for Public Works Department, in an allegedly “compromising position”. (There are more tape-controversies including those allegedly featuring a Kambal Waale Baba trying to poach MLAs into the BJP. Raman Singh had denied the allegations.)

The question now is – does Jogi still have sway in the state?

Amit Kumar Gupta, assistant professor of political science at Guru Ghasidas Central University in Bilaspur, says, “Ajit Jogi’s influence in tribal areas has been constant. And it’s still there, but it would be difficult to understand if the NOTA votes would be transferred solely on the basis of that.”

Bhawesh Jha, a psephologist and political observer, speaking to Moneycontrol, did concede that ever since the new party was formed, Ajit Jogi has been busy expanding his influence in the tribal areas and it might help him convert the NOTA voters into alliance voters. Both BSP and JCC have a considerable Scheduled Caste and Scheduled Tribe (SC/ST) influence.

Jogi is also known to have a considerable sway over the Satnami community. The community has a dominant presence in 10 tribal seats in the state, nine out of which are being held currently by the BJP. "I think a lot of people are forgetting the fact that BJP is going to be equally at loss because of the BSP-JCC alliance. Even if the BSP-JCC alliance bags two or three seats out of those 10, that would matter to the BJP," Jha said.

The Ajit Jogi-led party has so far declared 48 candidates, including RK Rai and Siyaram Kaushik, also erstwhile Congress members ousted from the party for making “anti-party” statements. In a seat-sharing agreement with BSP and CPI, Jogi's party would be contesting a total of 55 seats. The BSP will contest 33 and the CPI two seats.

So yes, Jogi does wield considerable influences in certain pockets of the state. Earlier, we mentioned the term NOTA – people who opted for None of the Above options. During the 2013 assembly elections across four states and one Union Territory, Chhattisgarh polled the largest number of ‘none of the above’ (NOTA) votes. It was the first time that the option was introduced, and it enabled voters to reject all contesting candidates. The polls in Chhattisgarh saw about 4,01,058 NOTA votes being polled, which comprised 3.15 percent of the total valid votes cast in all the 90 assembly constituencies of the state.

Will this group be swayed to choose an option this time around? And how will the Jogi-Mayawati alliance fare with group of voters? That’s the next on our list of factors.

4. A Whole Lotta of NOTA

In a state where the difference between the two major parties’ voteshare last time around was as little as one percent, a 3.15 percent chunk matters, and matters a lot. In 2013, more than one-third of 90 seats saw NOTA taking third place, while 17 seats polled more than 5,000 NOTA votes. Atharva Pandit writes, “Seven out of these 17 seats, meanwhile, saw an interesting turn of events in that the NOTA votes were more than the difference between votes polled by candidates. For instance, Baikunthpur constituency saw the BJP candidate winning 45,471 votes against Congress’ 44,402, with a margin of 1,069 votes. On the other hand, the NOTA votes polled in the region were 3,265.”

Raipur-based RTI activist Kunal Shukla has launched a concentrated campaign of NOTA, with the one-point agenda – “to teach a lesson to the BJP government.” Shukla claims the BJP has duped the people of Chhattisgarh. “Our target is to go beyond the last assembly elections. This time, we plan to effect NOTA in more constituencies and in 15 legislative assemblies at least in future. We had done a similar campaign in Karnataka, and the BJP was defeated by NOTA due to this campaign," Shukla told Moneycontrol. Shukla claims the BJP has not made good on its promises to build the Ram Mandir or to implement the uniform civil code, and that the party has let down upper castes and the Hindus.

Bhawesh Jha said, “People who voted for NOTA last time around might not vote in the same numbers this time because they see an option now.” That option being the JCC-BSP alliance. “Whenever there’s a new combination, we have to see where the combination’s vote bank is. Since the BSP-JCC combine has the SC/ST voter base, the NOTA vote could be transferred," Jha said. "Plus, in places where NOTA was polled more are Maoist-affected areas, they tend to boycott elections. NOTA was introduced for the first time in 2013, perhaps people had used it as a way of boycott,” he added.

Reports suggested that most of the NOTA votes during the 2013 assembly elections were polled in the Naxal-affected tribal belt of the state. For instance, in Bijapur, south Chhattisgarh, as many as 10.1 percent of voters chose NOTA over other candidates— it stood third in a battle between seven candidates in the region. The case repeated in Dharamjaigarh, an ST constituency where NOTA stood third in a battle between eight candidates.

If Jogi wields his considerable influence in tribal areas, as has been claimed by some, and if indeed the BJP-JCC alliance is seen as a pro-SC/ST alliance, then perhaps a chunk of the NOTA votebank could be swayed to vote for the third front. There are of course detractors to that theory too. While Amit Kumar Gupta said it would be difficult to understand the motives of the NOTA voter, Kunal Shukla was confident that the BSP-JCC would do nothing to change the mind of the NOTA voter, which he believes, is voting motivated solely by disillusionment with political parties.

5. What About Anti-Incumbency? Is Raman Singh’s Medicine Still Sweet?

In July 2016, Raman Singh became the longest-serving Chief Minister of the party, beating Narendra Modi no less for that spot.

Raman Singh is often called the ‘silent performer’ for the BJP in Chhattisgarh. An ayurvedic doctor by profession, the 66-year-old's electoral journey started when he was elected as an MLA from Kawardha in Madhya Pradesh, where he was born and where his family had influence. Singh shifted to Rajnandgaon constituency in 1999, and got elected as an MP. He was then appointed as the Minister of State for Commerce in the Atal Bihari Vajpayee government.

Chhattisgarh Assembly Polls 2018: Read the latest news, views and analysis here

Ironically, it is from the same constituency of Rajnandgaon where Vajpayee’s niece Karuna Shukla will be taking him on. Shukla was a BJP central office bearer until she quit in 2013 after she felt she was sidelined within the party. She joined the Congress in 2014, and has since criticised the saffron party for trying to encash the legacy of Vajpayee after his death in August this year. This time, Mrs Shukla is expected to invoke the legacy of Mr Vajpayee and slam the CM on issues of farmer welfare and state development.

Raman Singh had to give up his ministerial position when he was deputed to the newly-minted Chhattisgarh during the state’s 2003 elections. The BJP ensured that Singh got his due after the party swept the elections and made him the chief minister.

His tenure has seen its fair share of difficulties. The Maoist attack in Bastar that wiped out half of the Congress’ top state leadership had Singh and his government staring at a major crisis. The government had been riding on its success in reducing, almost decimating, Maoist attacks in Chhattisgarh, and had been planning to make it a BJP poll plank. The attack was a major dent on the government’s image and its plans, to the extent that the administration was unable to respond for days after the strike, and even the state BJP unit was mum. His handling of the aftermath – even if delayed – was lauded. In a rare, almost un-Indian move, he admitted to “security lapses.”

There have also been reports of internal rivalry within the party. Before the elections in 2013, Brijmohan Agrawal, the then minister of Public Works Department (PWD), criticised the chief minister’s top bureaucrats, calling them corrupt and asking for their removal. Agrawal, who had nursed chief ministerial ambitions before Singh was installed in 2003, also reportedly tried creating a lobby within the government and the state party unit, asking for a change of guard. Singh loyalist Rajesh Munat, the current PWD minister, had reportedly played a major role in cracking the lobby and saving Singh his post. The chief minister had responded by taking away the PWD portfolio from Agrawal and handing it to Munat after the elections. Besides, Agrawal’s position this time around have become shaky due to his involvement in a land scam.

Atharva Pandit writes, “For Singh, the challenges range from inter-party rivalry to have him unseated to projecting his state as gradually clawing towards a developmental model. He won’t have much trouble as far as the latter is concerned: in Chhattisgarh, Singh is known as the Chawal Waale Baba, thanks to his scheme of distributing rice to poor families for price as low as Rs 1-2 per kg. He has also been hailed for promoting startups in the state, with 36Inc, a startup incubation centre being one of the three non-academic incubators to be built by the central government under its Atal Innovation Mission.”

It is to Singh and his developmental aura's credit that his government does not seem to face the kind of anti-incumbency wave that his BJP counterparts in Rajasthan and Madhya Pradesh are up against. However, challenges such as farmers' discontent in the state and the party's loss of base in tribal regions are issues the chief minister will have to handle to ensure a fourth term for himself in the state.

6. Tribal Votes

Chhattisgarh has 29 seats reserved for Scheduled Tribe (ST), out of which Congress won 18 and BJP 11 during the last elections. That was shocking for the BJP, which had received unprecedented support from the tribal belt during the past elections— in 2008, for instance, it had swept the tribal belt by winning 23 of the 29 seats.

In 2013, prominent BJP tribal ministers in the state cabinet, including Nankiram Kanwar, Ramvichar Netam and Lata Usendi had lost from their constituencies. This was despite reports indicating CM Raman Singh’s popularity in the tribal belt.

The Congress, meanwhile, has focused on the Forest Rights Act, and pitched their poll battle in the tribal belt on the dilution of the act. The party has also been targeting the BJP-led central government over its reduction of MSP for minor forest produce by 53 percent. The Grand Old Party will look to revive its 2013 performance, and then some more.

The entry of the BSP-JCC alliance could also influence the tribal vote this time around. According to psephologist Bhawesh Jha, more than affecting Congress, the JCC-BSP alliance will eat into BJP’s votes. "I think a lot of people are forgetting the fact that BJP is going to be equally at loss because of the BSP-JCC alliance," psephologist Bhawesh Jha had told Moneycontrol.  "Even if the BSP-JCC alliance bags two or three seats out of those 10, that would matter to the BJP, as it will for the alliance," he had said.

7. Women Voters:

Atharva Pandit writes, “On October 5, Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) President Amit Shah addressed a ‘Matrushakti Sammelan’ in Durg. During the rally, Shah called for the “power of the women” voters to not just defeat Congress but also decimate the party the state. Although Congress hasn’t addressed a mega rally akin to the BJP in Chhattisgarh yet, its campaigning has highlighted the BJP government’s poor record with women. The party has cited incidents that range from the government’s ignorance of women in policy issues to increase in crime against women in the state.

In Chhattisgarh, as in any other state, women voters play a significant role in deciding the fate of the government. During the 2013 assembly elections, over 77.32 percent women had voted, 0.3 percent more than the male voting percentage. In these elections, as many as 22 seats out of the 90 going to polls will see women voters play an instrumental role. That is because these 22 seats have more women than men. Interestingly, only two out of these seats had elected a female representative during the 2013 assembly elections, and both from Congress.

Of the 77 candidates declared by the BJP for the elections this time around, over two dozen are female while out of these 22 seats, the saffron party has fielded female candidates in only four, including Sihawa and Kondagaon. BJP and Congress combined had fielded 24 women candidates during the 2013 elections. Of these, six of the 11 women candidates fielded by the BJP had won while four of the 13 fielded by Congress had managed to get elected.

Assembly Elections 2018: Read the latest news, views and analysis here
First Published on Oct 30, 2018 08:04 am
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