Ground Report: Where Chhattisgarh Stands on the Last Day of the Polls

The Wire travelled to eight constituencies in four different districts of the state to assess the situation on the eve of polling.

Champa: Deep in the forests, near a stream and a large Vaishnav temple with a backdrop of white stone hillocks, it is a surreal setting for a political discussion. Harvesting has begun, the temperature in the day is an amiable 30 degrees.

But what should have been a calm day for farmers in the village nearby has been turned into a chaos of SUVs and motorcycles droning down dirt roads.

The temple sits on the cusp of two constituencies – Rampur and Sakti. As we drive into the temple to meet the youngish baba who holds the keys to about 15,000 votes in the area, a fleet of vehicles with BJP flags can be seen crowding the large entrance of the century-old temple. A Jharkhand minister (name withheld on request) has come with his supporters to convince Baba Santosh Dube, 45, to ditch the Congress and support BJP candidate Meghram Sahu in Sakti.

This is intriguing because Dube, besides being the trustee of the Vaishnav Ram temple, was till one month ago also the block Congress president and was removed summarily by the PCC before Charan Das Mahant’s candidature from Sakti was announced, perhaps on his request.

Also read: The Rise of the Sahus is Set to Tilt the Electoral Scales in Chhattisgarh

Workers from both parties greet each other with rustic warmth and familiarity, crack jokes and as the BJP set leaves, the Congress lot gets busy convincing Dube be more active in campaigning for Mahant. Dube has his list of grouses and the parley goes on for nearly two hours.

Which way did he finally turned will only be known tomorrow when 72 constituencies in the state go to the polling booths.

Few ground rules

Predicting anything in Chhattisgarh is fraught with difficulties. Traditionally, it has been a binary rivalry between the BJP and the Congress with the difference of vote being only about 1% either way. The difficulty this time is the Bahujan Samaj Party-Janata Congress Chhattisgarh combination of former Congress chief minister Ajit Jogi is likely to upset all calculations.

(L-R): JCC’s Ajit Jogi, BJP’s Raman Singh and Congress’s T.S. Singh Deo. Credit: PTI

In the absence of any strong wave, Chhattisgarhis have always voted conservatively and in line with their moderate nature. But every time a national wave rises, it does not crash on Chhattisgarh’s shore. Instead, people flow with the tide. So whether it’s the pro-Janata, anti-Indira wave of ’77, Bofors tainted ’89, Atal Bihari’s Bari of ’98, ’99 and anti-Diggi wave of 2003, it has always respected and sensed the larger  sentiments and voted accordingly. Otherwise it has always voted the party in power, largely remaining status quoists. For years it voted for Congress and now for the past three elections it has voted for BJP.

So few ground rules were visible in all the constituencies. In Sakti, former Union minister Charan Das Mahant appears comfortable as he is a big name and people will rather have him than Sahu. In neighbouring Rampur, former home minister Nankiram Kanwar of the BJP is expected to win. In Korba, sitting MLA of the Congress Jaisingh Agawal, whose wife is also the mayor, is expected to sail through. Status quoists to the tee. Even Vimal Chopra, the only independent MLA in the state, is expected to retain Mahasamund.

So as the state goes to vote these are the discernible trends:

  1. There is no wave in anyone’s favour. No undercurrents either.
  2. The BJP is hopeful of a staus quo, claiming an incumbency factor in its favour.
  3. It is depending on a disruptive rather than a constructive theory of election management and on the inability of the opposition to prick the balloon. Both Rahul Gandhi and Narendra Modi have talked of everything from Rafale to dynastic politics but not local issues including MSP and corruption.
  4. The presence of a potent third party alliance has not deterred either of the main contenders from playing their own small games including fixing or selling  seats.
  5. The usual election issues like ‘bijli, pani, development’ are a footnote.

Its either the lethargy of  the electorate, inability of the opposition to throw up a challenge, Raman Singh’s blessed luck or all three put together, that has resulted in an unbroken 15-year reign for the three-time chief minister. But despite the years in power, he has remained likeable – a down to earth person that the Chhattisgarhis love. Very few may claim to have seen him angry or perturbed over anything. He has weathered three elections, the elimination of entire opposition top brass by the Maoists and some feeble challenges from within. His rating  has remained good after three terms and that in itself is a small miracle for any incumbent chief minister.

The sad part though is that ennui has set in, primarily the result of a long reign. The lack of new ideas and an administration that has  become opaque and complacent. The same people have been running the show for past two decades and look visibly tired and bereft of ideas other than extolling the virtues of their leader. Government servants never seem to retire, party faces never change and even the cook, gardener and drivers of the chief minister’s house have become used to a pattern of life. It can’t be good for democracy. It does not need chaos but certainly more vibrancy.

Also read: How the New Village Power Structure in Chhattisgarh Influences Voters

The bottom line though is that if there was no Raman Singh in the equation, then it would have been a cake walk for the opposition. The BJP knows this and so do all the discredited much disliked ministers in the cabinet. Even Amit Shah realises this and for the first time in a while, Narendra Modi’s face has played second fiddle to Raman Singh on all official party posters.

In the normal course only one – Brijmohan Agarwal from Raipur south – can win while every other member of the cabinet would lose his deposit.  This then should  have been the ideal opportunity for the BJP to infuse new blood in its system but it has decided to play it safe and test the patience of the electorate.

Former chief minister Jogi’s strength is his ability to bounce out of every hardship in life,  an indomitable spirit and penchant to spring a surprise. He worked hard on his relationship with Mayawati when most expected him to work through his batchmate P.L. Puniya to reconcile with the Congress. He did that too but having failed to break through the Rahul coterie, he has thrown in the dice with Mayawati. Jogi’s penchant for surprises, of course, extends to his inability to retain the loyalty of those who stand by him. After a proper name calling and wrestling match between JCC treasurer Gajraj Pagariya and another loyalist Vijay Nijhawan in Jogi’s residence, the former resigned from the party two days before polling.

Congress president Rahul Gandhi addresses a rally at Kawardha in Kabirdham district, Chattisgarh, November 14, 2018. Credit: PTI

 Jogi’s family oriented outlook has meant that three members of his four-member family are contesting. He has put up his daughter in law Richa as the BSP candidate from Akaltara while his wife Renu is contesting Kota . He himself made a lot of noise about contesting against Raman Singh from Rajnandgaon but backed out at the last moment to protect his home base Marwahi. After the novelty of his shock alliance wore off, people are now deserting JCC along with Pagariya.

Baghel’s belligerence is both his strength and his weakness. He is the only Congressman who has been able to stand upto both Jogi and Raman Singh. A member of the Digvijay Singh cabinet of the ‘90s in MP, he has his own circle of influence. And that circle has been built very strongly on a pro-Kurmi and anti-upper caste politics. He is a product of a time when Shuklas ruled Chhattisgarh and was backed by Arjun Singh and Digvijay who wanted to cut down the Shukla influence. Alongwith Satyanarain Sharma, Charandas and Nandkumar Patel he was part of a band of leaders who had held influential positions in undivided MP. While Charan got his chance as PCC president last time after Patel was shot down, Baghel benefited from the fact that Charandas was seen as a mild leader who could not effectively counter Jogi within the party and the BJP outside.

Also read: Timeline: As Chhattisgarh Goes to Polls, a Look at the State’s Political History

Thus Baghel ascended the PCC throne and soon proved to Rahul that he could counter Jogi who from all accounts got the blame for the loss in 2013. But his inborn belligerence means he resorted to some dubious political tactics. His reliance on seedy CD makers which helped him prove Jogi’s complicity with BJP to Rahul also eventually led to his own downfall. A CD has now appeared which appears to implicate him in fixing seats but  the Congress does not have a choice at this late stage to either remove him or put forward TS Singhdeo, the leader of opposition who is seen as an alternative. Post election results things will definitely take a different course. Tamradhwaj Sahu and Mahant remain strong contenders for the chief minister’s job besides Singhdeo.

The count

That brings us to what is the actual count on the ground. If we were to take all sure winners from both parties – based on their record and present ability – there is not much headway. From the Congress all senior leaders including Baghel, Sharma, Singhdeo, Mahant etc are expected to win. So is true of the BJP which has given tickets to all its sitting ministers barring one with the expectation that they will win. A seat by seat analysis throws up an interesting figure. Both parties are expected to win 27 seats each. That makes it 54, so the contest will be for the remaining 36 seats.

It’s here where Jogi hopes to come into play. He is hoping to stop both the parties short of the simple majority mark of 46. So what are his chances? Realistically the alliance can win – Chandrapur, Jajaipur, Marwahi, Kota, Akaltara, Pamgarh, Sarangarh and Mungeli. It can hope to cause an upset in Kasdol, Lormi, Khairagarh and Bhanupratappur. It can also hope to finish second in Arang, Navagarh and  Ahirwara. The best case scenario for the alliance is that it may win 8 seats. It will be desperately hoping to stop the BJP and Congress at 40 and 42 respectively. Then Jogi can negotiate with either party.

Will that happen? It may not since BJP has been continuously harping that Jogi is a friend much to Mayawati’s consternation. Jogi had to ultimately call a press conference today and swear on religious texts that he will not support BJP. The BJP plan is to impress upon the electorate that it is going to come back to power with or without Jogi and that Congress is out of the race.

Also read: Chhattisgarh Assembly Elections: 70% Polling Recorded in First Phase Amid Sporadic Violence

The BJP apple cart might roll over in the plains where its ministers are in the fray. Amar Agarwal from Bilaspur, Ajay Chandrakar from Kurud, Rajesh Mudat from Raipur West, Prem Prakash Pandey from Bhilai and Speaker Gaurishankar Agarwal from Kasdol are all on weak wicket. If they lose then BJP may get restricted to 40-42.

The Congress thinks it has done very well in the first round of polling on November 12 for 18 seats. It expects to win 14 of them improving upon its last first phase tally of 12 out of 18. It’s also banking heavily on its stalwarts to come through as well as an ennui factor — more than the anti-incumbency. Ironically the anti-incumbency works more against  the Congress sitting MLAs than the BJP but the party has refused to learn its lessons which may be its undoing. Two months ago, it was hoping to win 54 seats and if BSP came on board then 58. Now it has seen its fortunes decline to 40s.

So at the moment it is an interesting race – the alliance still holds the keys according to our assessment but in Chhattisgarh the scenario changes fast on the day of the polling as it may not have the network of volunteers and party workers to man the polling stations. That’s where the BJP scores. As for the Congress, it will wait for the electorate to do it for them rather than motivating the electorate and if they fall short in a Gujarat-like jam, it will have only itself to blame.