Of the five Indians states that have assembly elections in November and December, it is quite possible that Chhattisgarh will be the closest fight. The Bharatiya Janata Party, which under the leadership of Chief Minister Raman Singh has been in control of the state for 15 years now, is facing significant anti-incumbency. In 2013, the BJP’s vote share was only 0.7 percentage points above the Congress. This time – because of disaffection over paddy prices and social welfare policies – its position might be even more precarious, bringing up a question that is common to other states in these elections: Can the Congress take advantage, or will it fall prey to infighting and vote-cutting from smaller parties?
Elections in Chhattisgarh tend to make news because of the security cover in districts where there is a heavy presence of the Communist Party of India (Maoist), an armed insurgent group that opposes the Indian state and are commonly known as Naxals. But the bulk of voters, who will go to polls in two phases on November 12 and November 20, are likely to be making a decision based on concerns about agriculture, jobs and social welfare as they might in other places.
Currently, of a total of 90 seats in the state, the Bharatiya Janata Party holds 49 seats followed by Congress with 39, Bahujan Samaj Party with one seat and other independent candidates with the remaining. According to an opinion poll conducted by CVoter for ABP News, which released in October, the results predicted that the BJP will lose nine seats while the Congress is projected to win 47 seats in the state, crossing the halfway mark of 45. But the CSDS survey, also for ABP, said on November 9 that the BJP is going to handily win re-election for a fourth time, with 56 of the 90 seats, while the Congress will only bag 25.
What are the major issues?
As with much of India, one of the central issues that has come up in the last few years has been disaffection among farmers. In January 2017, farmers in Raipur gave away one lakh kg of vegetables to protest the Central government’s move to demonetise Rs 500 and Rs 1000 notes, saying it had severely had an impact on their livelihood. In September 2017, 129 farmers were arrested by police in Raipur as they were demanding that the BJP implement promises made in their manifesto like providing Rs 2,100 as minimum support price and giving Rs 300 as bonus for each quintal of paddy. In September 2018, just two months before the polls, Singh’s government announced Rs 300 bonus for each quintal of paddy. Along with this, the government also decided to rescind nearly 20,000 cases against members of tribal communities.
One of the reasons Raman Singh has been popular for much of his tenure has been the success of Chhattisgarh’s Public Distribution System. Reforms implemented over the last decade have seen the accessibility to food rations increase massively, with research suggesting that Chhattisgarh’s residents have access to more nutritious food compared to bordering districts of other states. But cutbacks in ration cards and entitlements, coupled with the Centre’s decision to push direct benefit transfers with unreliable Aadhaar authentication has reduced the efficacy of welfare and disrupted what was a successful PDS network. Instead of food security and social welfare, once the backbone of Chhattisgarh’s politics, the government is now relying on a cellphone distribution scheme.
Connected to this are allegations of a Rs 36000-crore scam in the PDS network and allegations that surfaced against Singh’s son Abhishek Singh for allegedly having offshore assets that were revealed among other names which emerged in 2015 in the leaked Panama Papers.
In specific districts of the state, there is also the question of Maoist-related violence. In October, Mint reported that since 2005, nearly 3,000 people living in Chhattisgarh have lost their lives because of Maoist-related violence.
Which are the parties in focus?
Chhattisgarh is a young state. It was carved out of Madhya Pradesh in 2000, and initially had a Congress government with Ajit Jogi as its chief minister, only to see Raman Singh take over in the state’s first proper assembly polls in 2003. The Bharatiya Janata Party has been in charge ever since, and though the vote share has become tighter, the distribution of seats in the assembly has remained about the same.
The Congress is the principal opposition party, though it suffers from not having a major face, coupled with the usual intra-party struggles that are frequently associated with it. In September, BSP leader Mayawati announced that her party had formed an alliance with Chhattisgarh Janata Congress, a party formed in 2016 by Ajit Jogi, the state’s first chief minister and a former Congress leader who was expelled from the party for alleged anti-party activities.
Where earlier there had been talk of the BSP aligning with the Congress to take on the BJP nationally, talks between the parties have clearly broken down, and many in the Congress are concerned that the BSP-Ajit Jogi combine could cut votes of those unhappy with the BJP. In a state where the difference in vote share was 0.7 percentage points in 2013, one other smaller grouping pulling away voters could change the entire result.
Who are the leaders at the fore of the election?
Chief Minister Raman Singh has been the face of the Bharatiya Janata Party in the state and has served three successful terms. In an interview to The Indian Express on November 6, Singh said that his campaign for the 2018 election in the state was centred on “all-round development”.
“We have made this a basis in 15 years, made a foundation,” Raman Singh said. “Roads, electricity, railways, internet and air connectivity…the dream to build a new Chhattisgarh.” Ajit Jogi’s alliance with BSP could impact “around 30 constituencies,” he added.
Former chief minister and founder of Chhattisgarh Janata Congress Ajit Jogi will contest elections from Marwahi, a constituency where his son Amit Jogi is the current MLA. Earlier, on October 20, he declared that he would not contest elections but that changed when the party declared its list of candidates 10 days later. In The Wire, Rasheed Kidwai wrote that if the BJP or Congress got a clear majority in the election, then that would mark the end of the “Jogi factor” in state politics. In case of a hung assembly though, Jogi might yet again be crucial to whoever ends up controlling the state.
In 15 years, Congress has been sitting in opposition. This is perhaps the reason why the party has been unable to project a potential chief ministerial candidate. One name that emerges from the party’s Chhattisgarh unit is that of TS Singh Deo, an MLA from Ambikapur and the leader of Opposition in Vidhan Sabha. In August however, Deo remarked that Congress would choose its candidate for the top job through a “swayamvar after the Assembly elections”.
Bhupesh Baghel, the Congress state president, is also a clear contender for the chief minister post if his party manages a victory in the state, though his alleged involvement in the circulation of a “fake” sex tape of a minister that even saw him jailed for a little while might come in his way.
What did previous elections look like?
Chhattisgarh was carved out of Madhya Pradesh in 2000 with Congress’ Ajit Jogi becoming the first chief minister of the state. However, after the state’s first elections were held in 2003, the party could not hold the state as the Bharatiya Janata Party subsequently took over the governing reigns.
Since 2003, the BJP’s vote share in the state has increased from 39.3% to 42.3% in 2013. Congress’ vote share in the state has also seen a rise with 36.7% in 2003 to 41.6% in 2013, which makes the competition between the two leading parties in the upcoming elections a close one.
In the 2003 assembly elections, the BJP won 50 seats followed by the Congress with 37 and Bahujan Samaj Party with two seats. The assembly polls in 2008 saw a marginal difference in results with BJP retaining its 50 seats and Congress with 38, gaining one more from the previous election. The 2013 assembly polls saw the BJP and Congress at 49 and 39 seats with the former losing one and the latter gaining one more seat.