Since Chhattisgarh was carved out of Madhya Pradesh and Jharkhand from Bihar in 2000, many parallels have been drawn between the two states. Both are Adivasi dominated, rich in mineral resources, and both sought to carve new destinies, keeping the interests of the large numbers of their poor at the fore. Their political journeys, especially until 2014, could not have been more dissimilar. Jharkhand’s many Adivasi political parties struggled to maintain a workable coalition with either the Congress or the Bharatiya Janata Party, let alone acquire an electoral majority, leading to no fewer than 13 changes of government in 15 years. Chhattisgarh saw political competition restricted to the two national parties and since 2003, the BJP, under the same leader, Raman Singh, has remained in power. Now, a third entrant, the Ajit Jogi-led Janta Congress Chhattisgarh, which tied up with the Bahujan Samaj Party for the Assembly elections held on November 12 and November 20, is set to change all that. What might change and how?
In the years since statehood, the BJP won three times but with the Congress always close at its heel, and neither party could afford to displease the electorally significant farmer lobby from the central plains. They tried to successively outdo each other in terms of making promises of higher procurement prices and bonuses, frequently far exceeding rates in other states. The issue of farmer subsidies continues to be in the limelight this election season too.
It is well known that under Raman Singh, the Public Distribution System became electoral common sense in Chhattisgarh. It would be cynical to suggest that keeping farmers happy through expanded procurement was the main motive, though this certainly played a part. Responding promptly to hunger deaths over the years, developing a constructive relationship with the Right to Food movement, and enabling the bureaucracy to reverse years of decrepitude and corruption in the delivery of subsidised food grains are all achievements that a stable party under a long staying chief minister can claim.
Chhattisgarh is a state where the Public Distribution System actually works much better than in other places and improvements in this system have been generally recognised by voters, despite the persistence of complaints and periodic scams.
While it yielded stability, this kind of restricted political competition had its problems. Both parties were dominated by elites from the upper castes and Other Backward Classes, Dalits struggled to find a political voice, and Adivasis even less so. Moreover, the success of the Public Distribution System as a winning narrative for the BJP frequently obscured, albeit not to its critics and other astute observers, the tremendous marginalisation of political dissent in Chhattisgarh. Raman Singh also presided over a government that, fairly single-mindedly, pursued mineral extraction with its profoundly alienating local impacts. Singh, his ministerial aides, and a strong group of loyal bureaucrats presided over institutional developments that enabled and facilitated private land acquisition, lobbied New Delhi for expediting environmental clearances, and tried to make Chhattisgarh a thermal power production hub for the country. It is a different matter that mining and mining-based industry have run into difficulties, such as those associated with land acquisition and lengthy permissions protocols.
Most importantly, while the mining, power and steel industries may have driven Chhattisgarh’s high growth rates, this has not translated into jobs. Unemployment is the biggest concern for voters in the state, according to the Lokniti-CSDS-ABP survey. While trends are similar in the other poll-bound states of Madhya Pradesh and Rajasthan, resentment against jobless growth, coupled with large-scale land acquisition and the view that employment is being funnelled to “outsiders” has become a serious challenge to the stability of the BJP.
The Jogi factor
The entry of Ajit Jogi’s party in the political scene has drawn much comment for how it will realign electoral dynamics. Branded a vote tudwa (vote breaker), the Janta Congress Chhattisgarh will cause the Congress to lose out, but so will the BJP. A coalition government seems likely for the first time in the state, and with that could end the era of BJP dominance. Pre-election voter disenchantment relayed to us on the television daily should not necessarily be interpreted as dissatisfaction with the government’s performance as much as a desire for change after three consecutive terms of the same party and chief minister. The point is simply that despite many flaws, the threshold of service delivery is definitely higher here and instead of the “vikas” or development vote that has mattered much more in previous elections, the “badlaav” or change vote may be more salient this time. This could have constituted a moment for the development of a more mature political discourse among contenders. Unfortunately, we see, as journalist Shekhar Gupta put it, a “flattening out of the freebies graph”. Does the voter really care which party promises more?
Jogi’s assertion that Chhattisgarh needs a regional party to serve the interests of its people is not persuasive either. Both Chhattisgarh and Jharkhand were formed at the same time, but only Jharkhand had a clear legacy of a movement that clamoured for statehood. Its many Adivasi political parties all claimed to be the true inheritors of the mantle of subnational identity, but the experience of the last 18 years has shown them to be virtually indistinguishable in their political principles from one another, or indeed from the ruling BJP. Jogi is a political craftsperson of great acumen. Whether his party’s claim to subnational indigeneity will offer a real alternative or whether it will simply play spoiler to a clear mandate for either the BJP or Congress remains to be seen. The resort to freebie politics from the very outset and the absence of any substantially new political discourse from Jogi and the Janta Congress Chhattisgarh suggests otherwise.
In any case, Chhattisgarh has now entered a new political phase and this raises some important questions ahead of next year’s general elections. For instance, does the marginalisation of Prime Minister Narendra Modi in the BJP’s Chhattisgarh campaign signify an enhanced role of dominant subnational leaders in shaping national electoral outcomes? The resurrection of Jogi calls for fresh analysis of whether subnationalism in the form of a regional political party can change the electoral landscape in the country. Alternatively, given the limited offerings, resources and success of regional parties in neighbouring states like Jharkhand, will national parties continue to serve their subnational constituencies better? Whether Chhattisgarh’s new politics will signify a different politics of development is a lot more uncertain, though uncertainty can also bring change.
Vasudha Chhotray is Senior Lecturer in Development Studies at the University of East Anglia, Norwich, United Kingdom.
Anindita Adhikari is a PhD student at Brown University, United States.
They researched the politics of development in Jharkhand and Chhattisgarh as part of a project funded by the Effective States Inclusive Development Centre, University of Manchester.