Weeks before Chhattisgarh’s assembly election, the ruling Congress has declared candidates for all 90 constituencies in the state. The names were released in three lists, the first bearing 30 names, the second 53 and the final one with the remaining seven.
While the BJP, which ruled the state for 15 years between 2003-2018, is fighting to regain the state; the Congress hopes that its performance under Bhupesh Baghel will ensure re-election. Voting for the 90-member assembly will take place in two phases on November 7 and 17.
The first two Congress lists bear the distinct impressions of the two major leaders in the state, who were not long ago embroiled in a spat over the post of chief minister. The first list of 30 names included those favoured by CM Baghel and the second list of 53 names are those believed to be chosen by T.S. Singh Deo.
In these lists, all but one cabinet minister has retained their seats, with Rudra Guru given a new constituency this time. Baghel has retained his traditional seat of Patan, where he would be facing off against his nephew Vijay Baghel.
Late Congress leader Mahendra Karma’s son Chavindra Karma will be fielded in Dantewada, where his mother Devaki Karma is the sitting MLA. Arun Vora, son of Motilal Vora, also got a ticket from Durg City, as did Pankaj Sharma, son of veteran Congress leader Satyanarayan Sharma, from Raipur Rural.
A dark horse in the first list was Girish Dewangan, a close aide to CM Baghel. Dewangan, the sole candidate from the Dewangan community for the party, has been fielded from Rajnandgaon against BJP stalwart and ex-CM Raman Singh. According to political commentators in the state, Baghel has a personal stake in Dewangan’s contest against Raman Singh.
Out of the 90 seats, 33 seats are reserved for candidates from Scheduled Tribes and 10 seats for candidates from Scheduled Castes. In the 47 unreserved seats, the Congress has fielded 29 OBC candidates. There are 17 women candidates, including five sitting MLAs, a cabinet minister and a former Rajya Sabha member.
Of the 22 sitting Congress MLAs who were denied tickets, at least five have lost their tickets to internal turmoil.
While Ramanujganj MLA Brihaspti Singh and Samri MLA Chintamani Maharaj were done in by negative survey reports, Khujji MLA Chhanni Sahu seems to be paying a price for taking a stand against the government.
Sahu, a first-time MLA, used to be a MNREGA worker. Before getting into active politics, Sahu used to construct mud houses in her village along with her father-in-law. A strong and vociferous leader, she was the only Congress leader who raised the issue of the Adani-operated Parsa coal blocks in the state after the election. The Parsa coal block, part of the Hasdeo coal fields, is one of the blocks over which tribals in Hasdeo Aranya have been protesting for close to two years. According to tribals in the area, the no-objection certificate obtained by the government from the gram panchayat is from a fake proceeding, a claim rejected by the Congress.
Sahu, who raised the issue against her own government, has had her fair share of run-ins with the government machinery. She shot to public attention in March 2022, after she travelled over 140 km from Khujji to Raipur on her scooter to attend the assembly session.
In December 2021, after a spat with a truck driver over illegal sand mining, an FIR was lodged against her husband Chandu Sahu, who was later arrested. Exasperated with the incident, in February 2022, Sahu returned her security detail and the government vehicle assigned to her despite coming from a Maoist-affected area.
“I am leaving my husband here for questioning, the police can do whatever they want. If my PSO and driver were not even allowed to give their statements in the investigation of this case, I don’t see how they are protecting me,” she had told the press then, before whizzing off on her Honda scooter.
Several within the party believe Sahu’s outspokenness had led to discomfort in the party leadership and the chief minister himself. She was not part of the MLAs who went to Delhi with Baghel in August 2021. Considered to be close to Singh Deo, Sahu held her ground, sources close to her said. “Since he couldn’t convert her to his camp, Baghel was wary of her. Her making news by deciding to ride around on a scooter gave her a rebel tag within the party even though she had a good hold of her region,” a veteran Congress leader said, requesting anonymity.
Party insiders say Sahu was not given a ticket because several private surveys, other than the one conducted by AICC, showed her work in poor light. But for the MLA, the decision was a shock.
“I have not raised a single issue for personal gain in my past five years. I have worked diligently and followed the rules and regulations of the party. If even that gets me negative results, I don’t know what criteria is being followed,” she said.
Congress has fielded Bhola Ram Sahu, the erstwhile Congress MLA before Chhanni was given a ticket in 2018. Bhola Ram, who has some experience of being left high and dry, believes history is repeating. “I was a sitting MLA when my ticket was cut and Chhanni ji was given a ticket. Now, the party wants some change, so I am back. The aim is for Congress to win the election, whoever is the candidate,” he said. Bhola Ram not only has to defeat the BJP’s Geeta Sahu but also establish a working relationship with Chhanni.
Several within the party agree that Chhanni Sahu was a pawn in the larger game of internal politics playing out in the Congress’s Chhattisgarh unit.
In the second list of candidates, two leaders who were at a crossroads with Singh Deo were missing. Ramanujganj MLA Brihaspati Singh has been replaced by Ambikapur mayor Ajay Tirkey. While Tirkey has been a crowd favourite with many laurels to his credit, Singh was unceremoniously dumped. Singh accused Singh Deo of an assassination attempt on him in 2021. The MLA gave a press statement and then the issue was raised in the assembly, prompting a walk-out by Singh Deo. While Brihaspati Singh later apologised, Singh Deo neither forgave nor forgot.
In August 2023, while holding a mass meeting in the area, without taking any names, Singh Deo said that any sleight against him or his parents would not be tolerated. “I was accused of plotting a murder. Allegations were levelled against me, my parents and my family. The party can decide what will happen here, but for me, there’s no compromise,” he had said.
Since the seat falls in the Ambikapur region, a Singh Deo stronghold, the party clearly decided to follow his lead and Brihaspati was promptly denied a ticket.
Samri MLA Chintamani Maharaj was once believed to be close to Singh Deo but later shifted camps. He was also denied a ticket. “There was massive opposition to Chintamani in Samri. The BJP led a strong anti-corruption campaign against him. Hence a new face has been fielded,” party insiders said.
Facing the prospect of rebellions by MLAs who have been denied tickets, the Congress party is focusing on pacifying them. “The party is not treating anyone unfairly. A lot of research has gone into making these decisions. For those who worked well but have not been fielded again, it is because the party wants to give greater responsibility to them. Everyone will be treated based on their work and will get an opportunity to work for people,” said a senior leader from the party.
Meanwhile, Kanker MLA Anoop Nag who was denied a ticket became the first Congress MLA to declare his intentions of running independently. “I have filed my nomination as an independent. Congress will realise its folly after the election,” he said.
The Congress seems to have fielded at least one candidate who doesn’t wish to contest the election from the constituency he was given. Mahant Ram Sundar Das, who will fight the election from Raipur (south) against BJP leader Brijmohan Agarwal, is not happy about his seat. The seat was allegedly promised to Raipur mayor Aijaz Dhebar, whose supporters protested on Thursday morning.
According to senior leaders of the party, the seats were decided on ‘winnability’, using various surveys and a reading of the ground situation. “Various agencies along with AICC ground workers have worked hard to provide a strong data set to the senior leaders, who have then decided the names. We are sure of all our candidates and those who’ve been denied a ticket will be accommodated elsewhere significantly,” a senior leader from the party said.