On November 14, during a public meeting addressed by Congress president Rahul Gandhi in Khursiapur, in Chhattisgarh’s Bhilai city, party leader Pratima Chandrakar went up to Gandhi and handed him a letter. When she returned to her seat, Chandrakar was caught on camera wiping away her tears. After reading the letter, Gandhi summoned Tamardhwaj Sahu, who is the party’s candidate from Durg Rural Assembly seat, and asked him to sort out the matter.

Chandrakar had won the Durg Rural seat in 2008 and lost it to the BJP’s Ramshila Sahu in 2013 by a margin of only 2,979 votes. According to media reports, Chandrakar’s letter asked why Sahu had been chosen over her. Amid the huge anti-incumbency wave against the Bharatiya Janata Party-led Raman Singh government, she must have been confident of her victory in the upcoming Assembly elections. Reports claim it was Gandhi who wanted Sahu to contest from that seat.

Split in Sahu vote?

The decision to field Sahu, the lone Congress MP from Chhattisgarh, in the Assembly polls was seen as an attempt by the party leadership to end the squabbles in its state unit. If the Congress manages to cross the majority mark in the 91-member Assembly, many in the Congress believe that Sahu could be the party’s chief ministerial candidate .

Representing the dominant Sahu community, the 69-year-old MP is a non-controversial figure and is considered particularly close to Rahul Gandhi. It was Gandhi who first appointed Sahu as the chairman of the party’s Other Backward Classes department, and later nominated him to the all-powerful Congress Working Committee.

Sahus, who are categorised among the Other Backward Classes, constitute nearly 16% of the Chhattisgarh’s population and could decisively influence the outcome of polls in 18 of the state’s 91 constituencies. This is why both the BJP and Congress have fielded Sahus from several seats across the state. In 2013, the BJP beat the Congress with a vote share difference of less than 1%. The Congress is possibly hoping that Sahu’s inclusion will help them bridge this gap.

“If he becomes the chief minister, the party will be hoping to corner a majority of OBC [Other Backward Classes] voters in the 2019 [Lok Sabha] elections,” said Mahendra Sahu, a journalist in Durg. “OBCs constitute more than 50% of the state’s population.” According to the journalist, when Sahu filed his nomination, everyone thought the election would be a cakewalk for him. “The situation has completely changed since then,” said the journalist. “In fact, even the BJP candidate was initially demoralised and had sort of given up on winning this seat. However, he later realised that ground reality is completely different.”

(Photo courtesy: Tamardhwajsahu.cg/Facebook).

Cast arithmetic in Durg Rural

Having come into existence after the 2008 delimitation exercise, Durg Rural is dominated by Sahu and Kurmi voters. Kurmis are another prominent Other Backward Classes community. While Sahus constitute 50% of Durg Rural’s population, Kurmis comprise 35%. Pratima Chandrakar belongs to the Kurmi community.

The BJP candidate – Jageshwar Sahu, a former minister – is also a member of the Sahu community, which means that the Sahu vote is likely to split.

Speaking to Scroll.in, Tamardhwaj Sahu admitted that Sahu votes will be split, but maintained that he would still win the seat. When asked if he was in the race for the chief minister’s post, he said, “I have never run after position in my entire career. I do what my party asks me to. Right now the priority is to win elections. Thereafter, it is upto the central leadership to choose a candidate.”

At the same time, Kurmis, the traditional supporters of the BJP, are upset with the saffron party for giving a ticket to a person they consider to be an outsider, and there was talk that Kurmi votes would shift to the Congress. However, Chandrakar’s emotional outburst in Gandhi’s presence seems to have upset community members.

Not finding representation from either party, Kurmis are rooting for independent candidate Chumman Deshmukh, which has made the contest in Durg Rural even more interesting. Even the Janata Congress candidate from here is hoping that a split in the votes could see him emerge as the winner. The situation on the ground is such that local residents are hesitant to pick a clear winner and often remind journalists about the caste arithmetic in the region.

Anti-incumbency against Congress candidate

Tamardhwaj Sahu’s troubles do not end here. While choosing him over Chandrakar, the Congress seems to have forgotten that he comes with baggage. He is already quite unpopular in his Lok Sabha constituency, and faces anti-incumbency pressure. “He rarely visits the constituency and hardly ever interacts with residents,” said Ramshulk Nishad, who owns a cycle repair shop in Kodia village. “He often visits his village which is few kilometers from here but never stops to talk to the locals.”

Several others joined Nishad in expressing their anger against Sahu’s aloofness. “Forget about greeting villagers, he does not even roll down the windows of his air conditioned car to exchange pleasantries,” said Visheshwar Yadav of Chingri village. “He has been missing from this constituency and has just emerged out of nowhere.” Another villager, from Hanoda village, pointed how Sahu’s photos never appear in the newspaper. “If you are not coming to the area just ensure that your photo comes in the papers so that people think that you are around,” said Raj Kumar Sahu. “He just does not care.”

There are also differences within the local Congress unit over Sahu’s candidature since many members think that he could even contest the Lok Sabha elections in 2019. “If he wins and is not made the chief minister, he will contest in 2019,” said a Congress leader who requested anonymity. “If he wins in 2019, he will want his son to contest the seat, which will be a major setback for deserving people like Chandrakar who have been working closely with the people.”

Anti-incumbency against BJP

What works in Tamardhwaj Sahu’s favour is the sentiment of anti-incumbency against the BJP due to agrarian distress, joblessness, and fatigue at 15 years of BJP rule. “If he manages to win, it will only be on this wave for change that is sweeping the countryside,” said Awadh Ram Deshmukh of Chingri village. “There is a feeling of fatigue with the BJP government amongst the people. They want change and that could work in his favour. Also, the agrarian distress in the state, unemployment and inflation are at play in these elections.”

Moreover, the possibility of Tamardhwaj Sahu being named chief minister if the Congress wins in Chhattisgarh is resonating amongst Sahu voters, particularly in areas adjoining Durg town. Some residents seem to believe that if he becomes chief minister, he will bring development to Durg.