Puneshwar Kumar Anand, a Congress councillor in Chhattisgarh’s Janjgir-Champa district, is having a difficult time explaining to his two sons why he is not supporting Richa Jogi in Tuesday’s election. His sons, aged 10 and 12, are rooting for her, Anand explained, because there is a “Richa wave” in their Akaltara Assembly constituency.

“A few days ago, I was campaigning for our party’s candidate, Chunnilal Sahu, when I got a call from a local Congress leader complaining that my house was flying a BSP flag,” Anand recalled. “I rushed home and was told the boys had done it. It is hard to explain to them why I am supporting the Congress. They think because Richa is the popular candidate I should back her instead.”

Richa Jogi is the daughter-in-law of Ajit Jogi, former chief minister and Janta Congress Chhattisgarh president. She is contesting her maiden election on the ticket of the Bahujan Samaj Party, an ally of the Janta Congress, but is widely considered the front runner in the three-way fight.

That is mainly because Dalits and Adivasis make up about 45% of Akaltara’s population. While the Bahujan Samaj Party holds sway over Dalits, Ajit Jogi enjoys considerable influence among Adivasis. “You won’t find one Dalit home that is not rooting for her in this constituency,” said Sant Kumar, a Dalit shopkeeper in Murlidi village. “Look around, every home has a BSP flag.”

Community loyalties, though, are not their only motivation. As Kumar explained, they contend that if Richa Jogi wins, “she will help carry out development work in the area to build her political career”.

“She won’t be like Chunnilal who has done nothing in the last five years,” he added. “We last saw him during the previous election and now we are seeing him only on posters. There are nearly 1,800 voters in Murlidi and I can say it with confidence that 1,600 will go to Richa.” Fellow villagers broadly agreed with his assessment.

'There are nearly 1,800 voters in Murlidi and I can say it with confidence that 1,600 will go to Richa Jogi,' said Sant Kumar. Photo credit: Akash Bisht

Indeed, any mention of Sahu’s name invites mainly unfavourable reactions across rural and urban Akaltara. He has “not done any development work”, goes the common refrain. “There is not one public toilet in Akaltara town,” said Shahid Qureshi, a resident. “We have been asking Chunnilal to build a toilet but he just doesn’t listen. When our MLA can’t build even a toilet, why should we vote for him?”

In Arjuni village, Munno Ramlal claimed that Sahu won in 2013 only because Ajit Jogi had asked them to vote for him. “When Ajit Jogi came to our village this time, he reminded us how he had asked for our support for Chunnilal in 2013,” Ramlal said. “He said Chunnilal betrayed him by not joining his party and we should teach him a lesson.”

Birendra Kumar Tandon, also of Arjuni, claimed that Dalits and Adivasis of 35 villages have “pledged to support” Richa Jogi. Arjuni has even prohibited other parties from campaigning there. Tandon, along with a group of fellow villagers, has been going around rural Akaltara, seeking votes for the Bahujan Samaj Party’s nominee. “The response we have been getting is overwhelming and there’s no way she can lose with so much support,” he said.

Although Sahu is still expected to retain the support of a section of his Sahu community, which has some 25,000 votes, most of the people Scroll.in spoke with in Akaltara argued that this election is a “BJP versus BSP contest”.

Chunnilal Sahu, the sitting Congress legislator, is facing a tough contest. Photo credit: Akash Bisht

‘She’s an outsider’

In Navapara, Bharatiya Janata Party supporter Arjun Das acknowledged Richa Jogi’s popularity and the Bahujan Samaj Party’s influence in the constituency. But she is an “outsider”, Das argued, and that will work in favour of the ruling party’s candidate. “Saurabh Singh has been working for the poor for years,” he said. “His entire family has been in politics. He is a good man who takes care of his people. It is because of him that 150 people from this constituency have got permanent jobs at the Lafarge Cement plant. He is also a little dabangg which appeals to a lot of people. But it will be a tough fight.”

Singh, an upper caste leader, had won Akaltara on the Bahujan Samaj Party’s ticket in 2008, but moved to the BJP after losing to Sahu in the last election.

Singh’s history of party-hopping seems to be working against him. A local BJP leader claimed that even his own party’s leaders privately call Singh an opportunist. “Senior leaders such as Dinesh Singh, Kalyan Sahu, Imran Khan and Satram Devangan are all campaigning against him,” alleged Anil Kumar, who lives in Kishora village. “I am sure the next time he will contest on the Aam Aadmi Party’s ticket.”

Pramod Kedia, who supplies grocery shops across Akaltara, has observed “a buzz about Richa not only in Akaltara but in adjoining constituencies as well”. “Saurabh has influence in some villages, but they are few in number,” he said. “The Dalit-Adivasi consolidation in Richa’s favour has made her the favourite.”

Most of the villages where Singh enjoys support have significant upper caste populations. Upper castes are the BJP’s core supporters, but in Akaltara their numbers are too low to constitute an electoral force. Here, some upper caste voters resent the fact that Dalits have begun to assert themselves politically in the last few years. RK Sharma, a shopkeeper in the town, described Dalits as “criminals” and blamed them for the violence during the April 2 Bharat Bandh, called by Dalit groups to protest against the Supreme Court diluting the Scheduled Castes and the Scheduled Tribes Prevention of Atrocities Act.

“Richa is an outsider who will never return to Akaltara once she wins,” Sharma said. “People should realise the good work done by BJP government, and vote for the BJP.”