There are two interrelated dimensions through which we can make sense of the Chhattisgarh assembly — caste, and seat-wise arithmetic.
The Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) under Chief Minister Raman Singh has deftly managed both dimensions for the past 15 years. A Thakur chief minister has ruled for three terms in a state where backward communities constitute over 90 percent of the population — Scheduled Tribes 32 percent, Scheduled Castes 13 percent and Other Backward Classes (OBCs) 40-50 percent. The BJP has won three elections despite its vote share lead over the Congress never crossing 2.5 percent.
Let us look at both these elements and piece together what could happen in the ongoing elections.
Mobilising backward communities
The politics of Chhattisgarh have been deeply shaped by how the BJP and the Congress have competed in mobilising backward communities. This mobilisation contributed to Chhattisgarh’s formation in 2000 and this is what will decide which party emerges victorious in these elections.
In the early 1980s, when Chhattisgarh was still a part of Madhya Pradesh, the then Congress Chief Minister Arjun Singh promoted Chhattisgarhi identity and mobilised backward communities to undercut his rivals Vidya Charan Shukla and Shyama Charan Shukla, who hailed from the region.
He promoted leaders from the Chhattisgarh region belonging to backward communities. One such leader was a civil servant with over 15 years of experience — Ajit Jogi.
In 1981, Arjun Singh constituted the Mahajan Commission to conduct a survey of OBCs in the state. His government introduced cooperatives for the collection of tendu leaves, a major source of livelihood for many tribals in Chhattisgarh. This eliminated middlemen, mostly Banias, who formed the core support base for the BJP.
When Chhattisgarh was formed in 2000, Congress chose Jogi as Chief Minister over VC Shukla, keeping in mind the state's demographics. However, he had a lacklustre term and the Congress lost power in 2003. Many OBCs, who felt that the SCs and STs dominated under Jogi’s rule, gravitated towards the BJP.
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Even Jogi’s status as a tribal came under doubt with the BJP alleging that he belonged to the SC Satnami community. It took a court order to confirm his tribal status. However, he does have a significant following among Satnamis.
Foodgrains and Sangh’s work
Raman Singh, like his fellow Thakur Arjun Singh, recognised the importance of wooing backward communities. Through a number of populist policies, he expanded the BJP beyond its traditional support base among traders and upper castes. Raman Singh’s big-ticket policy was overhauling the distribution of subsidised foodgrain and bringing the Chhattisgarh Food Security Act. According to CSDS’ pre-poll survey in 2013, subsidised foodgrains was the second most popular reason for people's support of his government at 15.3 percent, not much behind ‘development’ at 16 percent. The delivery was efficient as 80 percent of the respondents said that they received 35 kg of subsidised foodgrains every month.
The BJP also expanded its base through the grassroots work by the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) and Vanvasi Kalyan Ashram (VKA), a Sangh parivar affiliate that works with tribals. In his book Elite Parties, Poor Voters, Tariq Thachil argues that “VKA translated its welfare activism and reliable delivery of services into political influence and electoral support for the BJP”. Thachil also narrates how the VKA played a key role in sowing doubts about Jogi's tribal status in the minds of Adivasis.
According to the 2013 CSDS post-poll survey, people had a more positive view of the VKA and RSS compared to Christian missionaries. While 25 percent and 21 percent respondents had a positive opinion about the VKA and RSS respectively, only 1 percent and 3 percent had a negative opinion about the two organisations. In contrast, 8 percent approved of the work done by missionaries and 9 percent disapproved of it.
In this election, the Congress is projecting two OBC faces — Durg MP Tamradhwaj Sahu, who heads the Congress' OBC cell and Chhattisgarh's Leader of Opposition Bhupesh Baghel, a Kurmi. Kurmis and Sahus form around 20 percent and 16 percent of the state's population respectively. Agrarian distress has made the task slightly easier for the Congress, which has tried to win their support by promising a farm loan waiver and raising the MSP for rice to Rs 2,500 per quintal.
The party hopes that an increment in support from these two communities at BJP's expense will compensate for Dalit and Tribal votes it might lose to the alliance between Jogi's Janata Congress Chhattisgarh, the Bahujan Samaj Party and the Communist Party of India.
BJP vulnerable in seat-wise arithmetic
Jogi’s alliance and anti-incumbency against the Raman Singh government have made this a difficult election to predict.
In the last elections, 31 out of Chhattisgarh’s 90 seats were won by margins less than 5 percent. Of these, the BJP won 20, the Congress nine and others two.
This makes the BJP more vulnerable than the Congress as a small swing away could cost it a larger number of seats. Recognising the BJP’s weakness, the Congress is paying special attention to these closely-fought seats. For instance, it has fielded Tamradhwaj Sahu from Durg Rural which the BJP won by just 3,000 votes in 2013.
On the other hand, some of the Congress’ strongest seats are no longer safe, such as the Jogi family’s pocket-boroughs of Marwahi and Kota and Pali Tanakhar where sitting legislator Ramdayal Uike has moved to the BJP.
Opinion polls suggest that Jogi is harming the Congress more than the BJP. According to the CSDS survey, 16 percent of traditional Congress voters and 4 percent BJP voters are considering voting for the alliance.
Two pre-poll surveys have diverging predictions for Chhattisgarh, with the CSDS predicting a BJP victory and the C-Voter predicting a narrow win for Congress.
In the end, whichever party succeeds in mobilising backward communities and managing seat-wise equations will end up on top. If there’s a hung assembly, Jogi could be the kingmaker.
Aditya Menon is a Delhi-based political journalist and commentator. Views are personalFor more Opinion pieces, click here.Assembly Elections 2018: Read the latest news, views and analysis here