The 58 Vidhan Sabha seats in Chhattisgarhs central plains are where the states political heart beats. This chunk of constituencies lies at the centre of the 72 that go to polls on Tuesday. Its a battle in which the Congress fancies its chances.
In 2008,the Congress won 30 of the 58 seats in central Chhattisgarh,including sweeping two districts,Dhamtari and Mahasamund,entirely. The BJP won 26; BSP two.
Of the total 72 seats going to polls,the BJP and Congress won 35 each in 2008. One of the two BSP MLAs has since joined the Congress.
BJP leaders are candid in conceding that they are unlikely to be able to repeat their 2008 showing in the primarily rural and tribal south Chhattisgarh areas that voted on November 11. The BJP won 15 of those 18 seats in 2008,a showing that ultimately ensured Raman Singh returned as chief minister.
Since then,the Congress has only increased in strength in the plains and urban areas. It has won the majority of urban bodies elections here in recent years. Raipur and Bilaspur,the two biggest cities,have women mayors from the Congress. For Raman Singh and the BJP,a third straight victory will come only if they are able to improve their performance in the second phase enough to offset the widely expected setbacks of the first phase.
The prosperous central plain has been the political nursery for Congress stalwarts like the former state Congress chief Nand Kumar Patel,former chief minister Ajit Jogi,and the Shukla and Vora families. This is the region where agricultural activity and rice production is concentrated; it is also where most industries are located. While the BJP claims to have improved farmers lives by streamlining rice procurement,the Congress has dominated elections.
These plains have also seen the displacement of farmers in recent years,and cases of farm land being taken away for companies linked to BJP ministers have surfaced.
In this high-stakes phase of polling,the BJP has wagered big,choosing strategy that could either make or break the elections for it. It has,for one,chosen to place all eggs in the Raman Singh basket,going presidential style in the campaign. Not a single minister or state-level party leader is visible on hoardings,the idea being to exclusively focus on Singhs image and performance over the last decade. Singh had a major say in the distribution of tickets too,and dissenting local stalwarts grumble that his projection implies the local MLA did nothing for the people.
The relentless attack on Ajit Jogi has been the second visible element of the BJP strategy. Raman Singh asked people to compare his 10 years with the terror of Jogis three,Narendra Modi gave an analogy of an ugly woman who has a problem in her limbs,and the party has now issued ads in newspapers showing Singh and Jogi,with the latter depicted through an unflattering caricature.
Some BJP leaders have privately described the attacks on Jogi as obnoxious. It remains to be seen how the BJP campaign affects the 20 lakh first-time voters (of the total 1.68 crore electorate) who in all likelihood have only vague memories of Jogis rule.
The BJP won the 2008 election on the promise of rice at Rs 2/kg,and the party believes the scheme still has traction with voters. The dissident view,however,is that people have now come to look at subsidised rations as an entitlement. In a state where 72.4 lakh close to half the electorate voters are in the 18-30 age group,and 49.7 lakh of whom are under 25 years of age,the BJP,critics say,needs to promise education and jobs,not cheap rice.
Chhattisgarh has around 30 lakh Sahu and 14 lakh Satnami (Dalit) voters,who are likely to decide results in some 40 seats. The Satnamis have traditionally voted Congress; the Sahus BJP. The Singh government first gambled by reducing the SC quota in government jobs from 16 per cent to 12,and has now given tickets to as many as 14 Sahus,hoping it would offset the loss of Satnami votes. It remains to be seen how this gamble plays out.