Can Congress Maintain Its Edge in Chhattisgarh's First Phase of Polls?

The Congress holds 12 of the 18 constituencies that go to the ballot in the first phase. While improving its tally may be a tough ask, the grand old party should be wary of the BJP or Ajit Jogi's 'third front' denting its tally.

The first phase of the Chattisgarh assembly elections will take place on November 12, when 18 constituencies that are considered the most sensitive in terms of security will vote. Of the 18 constituencies, 12 fall in the division of Bastar, while the other six are located in the district of Rajnandgaon.

Konta, Bijapur, Dantewada, Chitrakoot, Bastar, Jagdalpur, Narayanpur, Keshkal, Kondagaon, Antagarh, Bhanupratappur, Kanker, Kheragarh, Dongargarh, Rajnandgaon, Dogargaon, Khujji, and Mohalla-Manpur are the constituencies going to polls. Both national parties – the BJP and the Congress – have fielded candidates in all of them.

The Congress has incumbent representatives in 12 of these constituencies (Konta, Dantewada, Chitrakoot, Bastar, Keshkal, Kondagaon, Bhanupratappur, Kanker, Kheragarh, Dongargaon, Khujji, Mohalla-Manpur), whereas the BJP holds Bijapur, Jagdalpur, Narayanpur, Antagarh, Dongargaon and Rajnandgaon.

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Before the 2013 assembly elections, however, the BJP had greater influence in these constituencies. In 2008, the BJP won 15 of the 18 seats, while in 2003, when Bastar, Antagarh, and Mohalla-Manpur did not exist as de jure constituencies, the BJP had 10 seats and Congress just five.

The voter turnout was 65.68% in 2003 and 67.14% in 2008. It increased by nine points in 2013 to stand at 75.93%.

One analysis of the increased voter turnout is that the local population was dissatisfied with the BJP government and sought to vote its MLAs out. The Congress benefited from that sentiment.

Chhattisgarh chief minister Raman Singh.

Moreover, the Naxalite attack on Congress leaders in the Jhiram valley of the district of Sukma generated sympathy for the party, increasing its popularity.

Of the 18 seats, 11 are reserved for scheduled tribe candidates, while one for scheduled caste. The Congress has dropped three of its incumbent MLAs. On the other hand, the BJP has retained faith in all but one of its six MLAs.

In the 2013 state elections, the BJP’s Vikram Usendi was elected from Antagarh. Because he became a Lok Sabha parliamentarian the next year, by-elections were held in 2014, when Bhojraj Nag won. The BJP has decided against fielding Nag in Antagarh this time around, favoring Usendi again. This suggests that the party is somewhat unsure of its footing.

In the 2013 elections, the BJP had chosen not to field four of its elected MLAs, but to no avail. Of the four fresh faces fielded by the BJP, three lost the elections. It has fielded all the victors of the 2013 elections, including the parliamentarian, who has been summoned from Delhi to contest the elections for the legislative assembly.

A stronghold of the BJP

For the BJP, five of the candidates have won at least two successive elections. These include chief minister Raman Singh, ministers Mahesh Gagda and Kedar Kashyap, and Vikram Usendi and Santosh Bafna. The fact that most of these constituencies are its stronghold is one reason why the BJP has not shuffled its incumbent MLAs.

The BJP has also shown faith in Sarojini Banjare in Dongargarh, the only constituency in the first phase reserved for scheduled castes.

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The Congress will find it challenging to defeat the BJP in these constituencies. For that reason, the Congress has decided not to field four candidates from the previous elections. One of them, Manturam Pawar, joined the BJP during the horsetrading that took place after the Antagarh by-elections.

Of the 18 seats, 11 are reserved for scheduled tribe candidates, while one for scheduled caste.

In Bijapur and Narayanpur, the Congress candidates is fielding the same candidates, whereas in Jagdalpur, Rekhchand Jain, who lost in the 2003 elections, has been given another chance. Former police officer Anoop Nag has been chosen to face off against Usendi in Antagarh.

The Congress has fielded Karuna Shukla, former prime minister A.B. Vajpayee’s niece in Rajnandgaon. Shukla left the BJP to the join the Congress and she look to topple CM Raman Singh.

The three constituencies where the Congress has withdrawn its elected MLAs are Kanker, Khujji and Mohalla-Manpur. Khujji MLA Bholaram Sahu was dropped despite winning the last two elections.

Of the 18 seats up for grabs, Konta and Mohalla-Manpur will prove to be challenging for the BJP. In Konta, the BJP has been unable to usurp Kawasi Lakhma, despite fielding three different candidates. But the party has given another chance to Dhaniram Barse, who lost in 2013 by just 6,000 votes.

Posters protesting the upcoming election has been put up across several villages in Dantewada. Credit: Sukanya Shantha

A tough test in other constituencies

The constituency of Mohalla-Manpur has been in the Congress’s hands since its inception in 2008. It’s interesting that in this constituency, both parties field new candidates every election. Shivraj Usare won for the Congress in Mohalla-Manpur in 2008, but the Congress withdrew support from him and fielded Tejukunwar Netam in the 2013 elections. Netam has now been dropped and Indra Shah Mandvi will contest the elections. In keeping with tradition, the BJP has also changed its candidate in Mohalla-Manpur.

Even the constituency of Khujji could become a cause of worry for the BJP. The party won here in 2003, and then lost it in 2008 and in 2013. In fact, in 2013, the BJP stood stood third in Khujji. Former MLA Rajinder Pal Singh Bhatia rebelled and contested the elections as an independent candidate and received more votes than the BJP candidate.

This time, attempting to use the caste equation to their favour, the BJP has fielded Hirendra Sahu. The Congress, similarly, has dropped two-time MLA Bholaram Sahu and has fielded a female candidate in Channi Sahu.

In these seats, the Congress has been ceaselessly reminding voters of the 2013 Jhiram valley incident when several of its leaders were killed. The party hopes that this will garner sympathy once again.

A possible third front?

Ajit Jogi, who split from the Congress to form the Chhattisgarh Janata Congress (JCC), believes, however, that his party has a good chance.

No third front has come forward in these constituencies as no party, other than the dominant two, has been able to win a respectable number of votes. In Konta, the Communist Party of India (CPI) has managed to compete with the BJP and Congress. In every other constituency, non-Congress and non-BJP candidates fail to even recover their electoral deposits. Other national and state parties get, at most, 1-2% of the vote.

Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) and CPI are the national parties that contest elections there while the Samajwadi Party is the most prominent state party. Yet, in the previous election, NOTA (none of the above) votes outnumbered any of those parties in eight constituencies. No party besides the Congress and the BJP has managed to finish in second place, even when an independent candidate was able to do so.

Also Read: Congress Leaders in Chhattisgarh Have Been Painting a Rosy Picture for Rahul Gandhi

Ajit Jogi, who split from the Congress to form the Chhattisgarh Janata Congress (JCC), believes, however, that his party has a good chance. He thinks that as an Adivasi, he will be able to garner votes on the Adivasi-majority constituencies.

The JCC has entered into an alliance with the BSP. Of the 18 constituencies going to polls in the first phase, eight – Dongargarh, Dogargaon, Antagarh, Kanker, Keshkal, Kondagaon, Dantewada and Konta – will be contested by the BSP.

In the 2013 assembly elections, the BSP received around 2% of the total vote in the eight constituencies it is contesting this time around. This shows that neither the BSP -JCC cannot be a viable third front. The JCC’s decision to allow the BSP to contest elections in constituencies where it polled only 2% of the vote-share is tantamount to accepting defeat. It would have made more sense for Ajit Jogi to field candidates from his own party.

Former Chhattisgarh Chief Minister Ajit Jogi. Credit: PTI.

Jogi, after forming the JCC, had emphatically announced that he would contest the elections against Raman Singh in Rajnandgaon. He has now gone back on his word. This again hints that Jogi’s party does not pose a genuine threat to the BJP and the Congress.

The Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) has also entered the fray, portraying itself as an alternative. It is using figures like Soni Sori to gain influence in Naxal-affected regions. The party recently broached discussion on the issue of the killing of children in a Naxalite encounter in the Nulkatong village, located in the Konta district.

In any case, how the various national, state and local parties fare against Congress-BJP will only come to light on December 11, when the election results are declared.

Deepak Goswami is an independent journalist.

Translated from the Hindi original by Karan Dhingra.