Chhattisgarh: An unprecedented surprise ahead

The first phase of Chhattisgarh Assembly polls is on November 12, followed by one more and the larger round on November 15. Now that the campaign storm has settled down on the streets of Raipur and Bastar, it is time to look at the issues on hand this time around.

CG has been a state since the dawn of this century, from 2000, and of these 18 years, Dr. Raman Singh led BJP has been ruling for 15 years, and Dr. Singh is seeking a fourth term this year.

Interestingly, the 26th state of India, Chhattisgarh, was formed on the ground that this most mineral-rich part of India was not getting its development dues in the erstwhile united MP . But 18 years into its existence as an Indian province, around 47.9 per cent of people are below poverty line, down by a solitary percent from 2000, and the state is placed at the 23rd position in Human Development Index among all Indian states as per recent data from the Modi government. Per capita income is still below Rs.8000 a month and 12.5 per cent of the population is the official unemployment rate (some 26 lacs of youths), double the national figures.

Alongside and riding on this abysmal poverty, we see the rise of Naxalism from 8 districts in 2000 to 18 districts today (some carved out of earlier larger districts). The approach of the state to treat Naxalism as largely a law and order issue, coupled with police excesses in many tribal villages called out by the NHRC also, and also vested interests in the security architecture keeping the trouble brewing to avail the central funds to fight Naxalism have all led to the current impasse.

In all of these years, in every Assembly or Lok Sabha polls, BJP has been winning with varying seats in a straight contest with the Congress (with a minor 5 per cent vote-share presence of BSP of Mayawati), but the vote percentage difference has always been below 2 per cent, with that in the last Assembly polls coming down to as minimum as 0.77 per cent. A minor shift of 1 per cent votes may mark an immense difference in the final tally of seats in a first past the post electoral system.

The Congress having failed first to quell a rebellion by its erstwhile leader and former CM, Ajit Jogi, and then failed to strike a partnership with Mayawati's BSP, has led to an unprecedented political situation in CG. Ajit Jogi formed Janata Congress has made an alliance with BSP and CPI and has led a spirited campaign trying to unite the scheduled tribes and castes of CG, who account for nearly 47 per cent of the population together and have decided influence in 40 of the 90 MLA assemblies.

Traditionally, the SCs and STs have been voting for Congress. However, the ground reality has changed in the last 10 years. First, the Sangh Parivar through its Seva Bharati and Vanavasi Kalyan Ashram, has made deep inroads into the hinterland of CG, and have politicised the tribals with Hindutva ideology, so much so that there is a distinct difference in thinking and politics of Hindu Adivasis and Christian Adivasis today in the state. Further, with the departure of Ajit Jogi from the Congress and steady rise of BSP in the state, the hold of the grand old party among scheduled castes has also weakened.

While the Congress bears the brunt of the Jogi-Maya combine, BJP has also lost ground due to demonetization impact being harsh on farmers as the farm economy has always been cash-dependent, who have been further incapacitated due to denial of Minimum Support Price at right rates and no crop bonus given for the last two years. Multi-rate GST and its ever-changing norms have also adversely affected the urban traders who have otherwise been always a BJP loyalist vote bank. Clearly, the PM, who had just two public meetings so far in CG, was silent on the merits of demonetization and GST and chose to speak on 'urban Naxals' which has hardly any local connect, and the principal opposition party, Congress has focused largely on these two.

Anti-incumbency is another albatross on the neck of the ruling BJP, facing public rage against many ministers and MLAs, in spite of the personal popularity of Dr. Raman Singh, leading to the cancellation of tickets to one-third of the sitting MLAs of BJP. If BJP is still in reckoning and most opinion polls predict a BJP win, it is due to CM image and some major development initiatives like e-auction in mining, telecom revolution with 1,000 towers in Naxal affected areas, 50 lacs smart-phones being given free, rice given at low cost to each family, public distribution system of ration being voted as the best in India, women as the head of the family in ration cards, and three smart cities in the state, Tata Cancer hospital in Rajnandgaon and 6000 crores worth new railway routes in the hinterland coming up.

However, what is being missed out is the fact that there is a local consolidation of SC and ST voters this time as they see a viable alternative in the Jogi-Maya combine, and even the Naxalite campaign against voting seems to be less critical of them. BSP, fighting in 35 seats, is very hopeful of at least 8 of them, especially those of Janjgir LS constituency since its founder Kanshiram had fought elections here. The CPI is strong in 2 to 3, and Ajit Jogi's writ runs large in at least 10 seats with Satnami voters being in large numbers. If even half of these seats are won by the third front, both the national parties are up for a rude shock.

Independent observers, including at least one opinion poll by CVoter, opine that the Jogi-Maya combine may end up with 20 per cent + votes and 15+ seats, which may result in a Karnataka type situation with BJP being the single largest party, but none with 46 out of 90 seats to form a government. And, we may see the action replay of Bengaluru-model here too, with Rahul offering Ajit the CM-position and calling for a Congress-Third Front alliance, which is unprecedented in Chhattisgarh context.

The author is a media academic and regular commentator on current affairs, working as the Media Dean of Pearl Academy, in Delhi & Mumbai

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