Chhattisgarh was for long thought of as a tribal state alongside Jharkhand and the North East owing to its large tribal population – even when it was part of Madhya Pradesh. It had 32 Scheduled Tribe Assembly seats out of 90, and for the Congress that is where the story rested. Arvind Netam and Ganga Potai were for decades the grand old party’s flag bearers. They were later joined by Mahendra Karma.
Then something radical happened in March this year. Tamradhwaj Sahu, a little-known leader from Durg and first-time member of parliament, made it to the Congress Working Committee’s main body of 19 which did not include even the likes of Digvijay Singh and Kamal Nath.
By August this year, it had become clear that Sahu, 68, was marked for bigger things. And, although the party’s in-charge general secretary P.L. Puniya mostly kept him out of initial deliberations in the state, Sahu landed with a thump from the top into a seven-member panel just ahead of ticket distribution. More surprises were in store. Sahu, whom PCC president Bhupesh Baghel was pushing to contest from Bemetarawho, replaced Baghel’s protege Pratima Chandrakar, who had already been declared candidate from Durg (Rural). A former member of Digvijaya’s cabinet in undivided Madhya Pradesh (MP), Sahu is also the lone Congress MP from Chhattisgarh to defeat BJP’s national general secretary and Saroj Pandey. Now the buzz is that Sahu is a serious claimant for the chief minister’s chair in case the Congress makes it.
What Sahu’s rise in stature shows is that Rahul Gandhi is now thinking like a politician and is not being entirely guided by state satraps. He has not forgotten the tribals, brought the old war horse Netam back, and given due importance to Kawasi Lakma, the four-time MLA from Dantewada. Rahul has also shifted his gaze towards the OBCs, who, at 47%, form the largest segment of the state’s population. The OBC cluster mostly comprises Sahus, Kurmis and Kalars. Sahus form an estimated 17-20% of the vote as well as the population. Along with the Kurmis – who have been at the forefront for much longer through leaders like Purushottam Kaushik, Chandulal Chandrakar, Vasudev Chandrakar, Bhupesh Baghel and Ramesh Bais – the Sahus form the bulk of the OBC vote in Chhattisgarh.
But Rahul’s interest in the Sahus has been impressed upon him by circumstances. Community leaders had met him about six months ago and promised en masse support if one of theirs was given due importance. Their plea was that while tribal, Kurmi and Satnami vote was being farmed, nothing was being done to attract the Sahus who dominate at least seven of the 27 districts in the state and are spread evenly elsewhere. Durg, Rajnandgaon, Dhamtari, Mahasamund, Gariyaband, Balodabazar and Kawardha are their immediate areas of influence while in some constituencies like Abhanpur and Rajim, they account for more than 60% of the vote. Abhanpur, incidentally, is now witnessing the sixth straight contest between Congress’s Dhanendra Sahu and BJP’s Chandrashekhar Sahu.
The Sahus are also reasonably big land owners and are influential farmers in rural settings. In the past two decades, they have grown to capture government jobs in the state meant for the OBCs and have become similar to the Meenas of Rajasthan in their influence over the middle and lower level administrative machinery in the state. They are now demanding their pound of flesh in the political system.
Rahul heard the delegation and turned to his IT crack team to do the ground work. What the IT team reported to him was even more valuable: the BJP was planning to field more Sahu candidates this time since it suspected it could no longer rely on Satnami (SC) votes, which could go to Ajit Jogi of the JCC. In 2013, the BJP had cleverly targeted the non-Dalit vote in the ten SC seats while at the same time dividing the Dalit vote itself through people like Baba Baldas, a religious leader of the Satnami sect. The result: the BJP won nine out the ten seats and was able to form the government even though it suffered a setback in ST seats.
The Sahus have actually been working with both parties to get their fair share. And they feel their time has come. The BJP had not given them sufficient representation, and their tallest leader, Chandrashekhar, had lost to Dhanendra. Ramshila Sahu became a minister in Raman cabinet in 2013, but she could not do much. She has now been denied a ticket as the BJP has rolled out as many as 14 Sahu candidates, a record of sorts for any single community. The Congress has given tickets to eight candidates, JCC to six.
Three seats – Abhanpur, Durg (Rural) and Khujji – will see a direct Sahu Vs Sahu contest. At other places, they have been matched against other OBC castes to go with party’s traditional vote banks. In Patan, for instance, Motilal Sahu, a BJP veteran from the Mahasamund area, has been brought in to take on PCC president Baghel and to grab the residual vote as Baghel will likely corner the Kurmi vote entirely. In Rajim, which has more than 60% Sahu votes but is former chief minister SC Shukla’s family seat, both parties have surprisingly fielded Brahmin candidates, prompting the JCC to put up a Sahu. But if Jogi thinks Sahus will simply vote for a Sahu, he has forgotten that Sahus are a wise community and have survived and risen by picking winners. It’s tough to tell who they have picked this time, but Tamradhwaj seems on a roll.
The Sahus of Chhattisgarh have already exported a chief minister – Raghuvar Das, who belongs to Rajnandgaon – to Jharkhand. They may now be aiming to capture the home turf.
Neeraj Mishra is a senior journalist who has covered elections in central India for more than two decades.