Campaigning for the second phase of the Chhattisgarh Assembly election is at its peak, but farmers and daily wage labourers in Mahasamund have more pressing matters on their mind: there’s severe agrarian distress in the district and work is scarce.

In Mahasamund town, a group of labourers sat outside a tea shop, waiting for someone to offer them work. They said work for them has almost dried up since Diwali and the situation is unlikely to change until after the election. Chhattisgarh voted for 18 of its 90 Assembly seats on November 12, and polling for the rest will take place on November 20.

Farmers are suffering as well. Daulat Ram Guru, a cultivator in Nayapara village, said farming has become unviable. “We are not even able to recover what we invest,” he complained.

So, this election, they want “change”. Several farmers and labourers spoke with across the Mahasamund constituency said they are unhappy with Raman Singh’s Bharatiya Janata Party government. “Not much has changed in the past few years,” complained Siyaram Yadav, a farmer in Sohri village. “BJP’s style of governance has reached a point of stagnation so people are seeking change.”

Daily wage labourers wait for work in Mahasamund town. They said work for them has almost dried up since Diwali. Photo credit: Akash Bisht

Indeed, the perception that the BJP government has failed to tackle the farm distress was the key reason Congress chief Rahul Gandhi’s campaign rally in Mahasamund on November 13 attracted a huge crowd.

Gandhi railed against the alleged misdeeds of BJP leaders, accusing Raman Singh and his family of corruption and constantly mentioning “Rafale scam”, only to get a muted response. He lashed out against Narendra Modi for helping “crony capitalists” such as Anil Ambani, Nirav Modi and Vijay Mallya, and still the crowd did not show much enthusiasm. Same when he talked about demonetisation, about the prime minister “snatching money from the poor, but ensuring benefits for the rich”.

It was only when the Congress leader started speaking about the problems of farmers that the crowd responded resoundingly. “I want to tell the farmers of Chhattisgarh that the Congress will fulfil all the promises that Modi made but did not keep,” he said. “Within 10 days of coming to power, we will waive all loans of farmers in the state. For paddy, we will raise the minimum support price to Rs 2,500.”

The audience responded by shouting, “Rahul Gandhi ki jai, Congress party ki jai.”

Gandhi accused Raman Singh of betraying Chhattisgarh’s farmers by not keeping his promise to provide a minimum support price of Rs 2,100 for paddy. “He promised Rs 2,100 and gave only Rs 1,750,” the Congress chief said. “This government can waive a debt of Rs 3,50,000 crore of 15 people but not of the farmers of Chhattisgarh and India. Is this right?”

“No,” the crowd shouted.

Rahul Gandhi’s rally in Mahasamund attracted a huge crowd. Photo credit: Akash Bisht

We need change’

Alkeshwar Puri had come to the rally from Kamarmurha village. He said Gandhi touched a chord with him and his fellow farmers. “My debt is rising by the year,” Puri said. “Farmers have committed suicide because of mounting debts and I hope none of us have to do that. Rahul is saying they will waive off our debt. If he does, I and my family will forever vote for the Congress.”

Guru, who had travelled from Nayapara to hear Gandhi, echoed Puri’s sentiment. “We need change,” he said. “We are tired of seeing the same faces. It is time we give the Congress a chance.”

Though this desire for change weighs in favour of the Congress, it is not a straightforward fight in Mahasamund. Not least because the fray is packed: apart from the BJP and the Congress, Ajit Jogi’s Janata Congress Chhattisgarh, the Aam Aadmi Party and the incumbent independent Vimal Chopra are the main contenders. Add in the caste dynamic and the contest becomes dizzyingly fluid. Mahasamund is populated predominantly by the Other Backward Classes who make up nearly 50% of the vote; of them, Sahus are about 20% and Yadavs 12%. Scheduled Castes are 17% of the population, with the Gonds constituting the majority, and the Scheduled Castes around 11%.

Daulat Ram Guru, a cultivator from Nayapara village, said farming has become unviable in Mahasamund. Photo credit: Akash Bisht

The Congress and the BJP have both fielded candidates from the Kurmi community, part of the Other Backward Classes. While the Congress has nominated Vinod Chandrakar, the BJP has gone with Poonam Chandrakar, who had won this seat in 2003. The Kurmis are big farmers who own vast tracts of land in a region where average land ownership is around two acres. As such, they have considerable influence over other caste groups, especially those whose members work as labourers on their farms.

Jogi’s party is being represented by Tribhuwan Mahilang, a popular leader who moved from the BJP before the election. The Aam Aadmi Party has fielded Sanjay Yadav, but he does not seem very confident. “Our biggest problem is the lack of funds and since people do not know us they hesitate in donating,” Yadav said, blaming the lack of visibility on the media “not giving space” to his party. “We hope that votes get divided amongst these parties and we win.”

This athematic, specifically a split in the Other Backward Classes support between the Congress and the BJP, also works for Chopra.

Chopra was in the BJP but left when he was denied a ticket to contest the 2013 election. He contested as an independent and won handsomely. He had been angling for the BJP to nominate him this time, but was again overlooked.

“The BJP is facing anti-incumbency but it is still hard to predict who will win Mahasamund considering there is a candidate from almost every community,” said Dilip Kumar Mohobia, who runs a paan shop in the town.

'It is hard to predict who will win considering there is a candidate from almost every community,' said Dilip Kumar Mohobia. Photo credit: Akash Bisht

But nearly everyone spoke with said the ruling party’s prospects are bleak. “Raman Singh was giving us Rs 1,400 for paddy and he raised it to Rs 1,750 only in this election year,” complained Ganga Ram, a farmer in Munga Sher village. “This despite knowing that four years of drought have wreaked havoc on farmers and another such year will force us to migrate to cities for work. A chief minister should be sympathetic to farmers. After all, we voted for his party. Now, we want to bring about change.”