When a senior Congress leader was asked about his party’s prospects in the three poll-bound Hindi heartland states, he had this assessment to offer: “We should win Rajasthan, it’s touch-and-go in Madhya Pradesh but I am not sure about Chhattisgarh… we are in trouble there.”

In Chhattisgarh, Assembly elections will be held in two phases on November 12 and November 20. Madhya Pradesh will vote on November 28 and Rajasthan on December 7. The votes will be counted on December 11.

Reports from Chhattisgarh corroborate the Congress leader’s assessment. The Raman Singh-led Bharatiya Janata Party government has been in power for three consecutive terms. After 15 years at the helm, it would be safe to assume that the government faces anti-incumbency pressure and voter fatigue, which should make it easy for the Congress to dislodge it. On the contrary, the Congress has failed to get its act together and may just end up gifting another term to the BJP.

“It is a fact that the Congress campaign against the BJP here lacks punch,” said Chhattisgarh-based social activist Vikram Singhal. “Its leaders have not raised issues with the ferocity expected of an Opposition party that has been out of power for 15 years.”

Congress leaders have been attacking individuals and pointing to their misdemeanours but there is no concerted effort to take on the government’s anti-people policies and build a larger narrative, he said. “For instance, the Congress has failed to expose how this government has virtually sold the state’s rich natural resources to corporates and industrial houses,” he said. “No one talks about the large sums of money spent on building a new capital city, which is barely occupied by a handful of families.”

Chhattisgarh Congress leaders speak in the same vein. They admit that though there are a host of subjects on which they can pin down the BJP, their attack has, at best, been lacklustre. They say many senior party leaders have shied away from taking on the ruling dispensation because they are dependent on government handouts while others are virtually seen as an extension of the Raman Singh cabinet.

Chhattisgarh Congress chief Bhupesh Baghel's brush with controversy has not helped the Congress. (Credit: @INCChhattisgarh / Twitter)

Weak leadership

Most importantly, the Congress is handicapped by a weak state leadership.

Chhattisgarh Congress chief Bhupesh Baghel had barely settled into his job when he found himself in the eye of a storm. He was arrested in September in connection with the distribution of a pornographic CD allegedly featuring state minister Rajesh Munat. Munat has claimed that the CD is fake and an attempt to defame him.

Days later, Baghel was in the dock again, this time over an audio sting in which he is allegedly heard demanding money for tickets. The audio clip was delivered to Congress president Rahul Gandhi. Gandhi set up a five-member committee to scrutinise the recommendations of the state unit for the distribution of tickets – undermining Baghel’s position.

While the Congress is struggling to set its house in order, the BJP is moving ahead confidently, aware that it has several advantages over its political opponent. The party has ample resources, a well-oiled organisation, and governments both in the state and at the Centre. In addition, Raman Singh’s personal popularity has not been dented.

Poaching strategy

On the flip side, there is growing anger against BJP ministers and legislators. Taking note of this, BJP president Amit Shah announced that 50% of sitting MLAs would not be repeated. The party hopes to duck anti-incumbency against individual legislators by denying them tickets and fielding fresh faces. At the same time, BJP strategists are said to have identified seats where the Congress has a strong base with the express purpose of poaching the rival party’s candidates from these constituencies.

The BJP set the ball rolling with the induction of Ram Dayal Uike, working president of the Congress state unit and a top Adivasi leader, on October 13. Others could join him as the BJP’s “Operation Congress todo” (Operation break the Congress) is expected to gather momentum as the election draws near. It can be assumed that money power will be used for this campaign. The focus will be on Adivasi leaders as the Congress had done well among this community in the last Assembly election.

In fact, there is a growing fear in the Congress that the BJP will whisk away its candidates close to the date of filing nominations. This had happened twice in 2014. A day after the Congress had declared Bhagirath Prasad its candidate from Bhind Lok Sabha constituency in Madhya Pradesh, he had switched sides and contested as a BJP candidate. Months later, Manturam Pawar, the Congress candidate from Antagarh Assembly seat in Chhattisgarh, had ditched the party for the BJP after filing his nomination.

Ajit Jogi's primary aim is to destroy the Congress, analysts say. His alliance with Mayawati's Bahujan Samaj Party is expected to hurt the Congress' prospects in the November polls. (Credit: PTI)

The Ajit Jogi factor

There is a common factor in these developments: former chief minister and rebel Congress leader Ajit Jogi. Both Uike and Pawar are known to be close to Jogi, who launched his party, the Janta Congress Chhattisgarh, in 2016. Known as the BJP’s B-team, Jogi worked in tandem with Raman Singh even when he was with the Congress. Now that he is out of the party fold, his primary aim is to destroy the Congress, political watchers say.

“Jogi will go to any length to ensure the defeat of Congress candidates and it is the same with the Congress,” said Singhal. In the process, he will help the BJP. Since the difference of vote share between the BJP and the Congress is a mere 0.7% and the margins of victory are narrow, the presence of a third party in a bipolar state will work to the saffron party’s advantage. The BJP is banking on Jogi to disturb the Congress’ Adivasi vote as the former chief minister has a substantial following among the Satnami community.

Moreover, Jogi’s partnership with Bahujan Samaj Party chief Mayawati has added a fresh dimension to electoral dynamics in Chhattisgarh. The two leaders have the potential to wean away a chunk of Adivasi and Dalit votes, which will hurt the Congress as it is also wooing the same social constituency. It was with an eye on consolidating the Dalit vote in its favour that the Congress had approached Mayawati for a tie-up in the Assembly polls. But the talks fell through and Mayawati announced in September that she had decided to go with Jogi instead.

While the Jogi-Mayawati alliance deals a blow to the Congress’ plan of winning over the Scheduled Castes, it could also have consequences for the BJP, which made major gains in Scheduled Caste reserved constituencies in the 2013 election. The BJP is, therefore, taking no chances and has set its sights on Congress candidates who can be persuaded to switch sides.