Months after a convincing Congress victory in the Assembly elections, Chhattisgarh heads for Lok Sabha polls. Given that the BJP had won all previous Assembly and Lok Sabha polls since the state was formed in 2000, mostly with tight margins, all eyes are on how voters will choose when a dominant Congress is in power. The Congress won 68 of the 90 seats and the BJP just 15, with the remaining 7 going to a combine of the BSP and former Chief Minister Ajit Jogi’s new party.
What has the BJP been doing since the Assembly poll defeat?
With two months to go for the Lok Sabha elections, the BJP has not yet recovered from the emphatic loss. There was disagreement during discussions for the post of Leader of Opposition. The post eventually went to state BJP president Dharamlal Kaushik, who is considered close to former Chief Minister Raman Singh. Many in the party believe no accountability has been fixed for the defeat, with positions of authority given to those who had led them in the elections. Party members attached to senior leaders opposed to the Raman Singh camp have been constantly airing their grievances in public. Suman Dubey, a journalist with a news portal called voices.in, was allegedly assaulted as he filmed arguments breaking out among BJP cadre at a review meeting at the party headquarters in Raipur. While journalists have been protesting, the BJP has taken no action on those responsible for the assault.
How is the Congress preparing?
Its new government seems to be working on a two-pronged strategy with elections in mind. On the one hand, the government is trying to work on the big promises in the manifesto; it has said it has waived Rs 10,000 crore in short-term farm loans. Another promise fulfilled is the acquisition of paddy at Rs 2,500 per quintal. In the first budget Friday, Chief Minister Bhupesh Baghel announced halving of electricity tariff for families consuming up to 400 units.
The second part of the strategy appears to be targeting of political and bureaucratic figures seen as close to the previous government. There has been a rush of FIRs for alleged corruption against Aman Singh, former principal secretary to then Chief Minister Raman Singh, as well as DG-ranked IPS officer Mukesh Gupta and SP Rajnesh Singh. Special investigating teams have been set up for the Jhiram Ghati case (Naxal attack on Congress convoy in 2013), alleged PDS scam, e-tendering irregularities flagged by the CAG report, and the Antagarh tapes case (alleged fixing of elections). In the Antagarh tapes case, an FIR has also been filed against Dr Puneet Gupta, son-in-law of Raman Singh. Some in the bureaucracy have questioned the government’s haste.
What are the big trends of 2018 and how are they expected to play out in 2019?
The big trend carried over will be farmer issues. The Congress will clearly highlight the loan waiver, and cite examples of farmers freed of debt, while the BJP will continue to point out that the waiver does not yet cover farmers who took loans from moneylenders and non-formal sources. In his rally in Raigarh Friday, Prime Minister Narendra Modi spoke of the benefits of the Centre’s PM Kisan Sammn Scheme of Rs 6,000 per month to farmers who own less than 5 acres.
The potential game-changer could be paddy at Rs 2,500 per kilo, which the government is acquiring. In 2013, the BJP had promised a minimum support price (MSP) of Rs 2,100 per quintal and a bonus of Rs 300 per quintal per year, but the government could not live up to it — for three years out of five, the MSP never rose from Rs 1,750 per quintal.
How far is the BJP relying on the idea that people often vote differently in Assembly and Lok Sabha elections?
The BJP will possibly take heart from the fact that at national level, Chhattisgarh has thus far always decisively chosen the BJP, giving them 10 of 11 Lok Sabha seats each time. The BJP believes that if the party can come together, the draw of Prime Minister Modi and various central schemes will carry them through. On the other hand, the Congress will argue that with elections held only four months apart, the reason the BJP swept to power each time was that the people voted for the same party twice, and that this will apply to the Congress now. It believes that like in previous elections, promises made by the state government in power rarely fade in a short time. Besides, the Congress was too far ahead — 68 of 90 seats, and a gap of 10 percentage points in vote shares. Another factor is possible anti-incumbency against BJP MPs.
Is the alliance between Ajit Jogi’s party and the BSP likely to have a bearing on the Lok Sabha elections?
The Janata Congress Chhattisgarh (Jogi)-BSP combine did perform in the Assembly polls. While the JCCJ got 5 seats, the BSP got 2. Had the main contest been tighter, they could well have been kingmakers. But after the Congress dominance, it is not even clear whether the coalition will continue for the Lok Sabha elections. There have been a few murmurs in the BSP camp against the JCCJ which, for its part, has said negotiations are on. Even if the two were to come together again, what effect they will have remains to be seen. No party other than the Congress or the BJP has ever won a Lok Sabha seat, and in terms of influence, the JCCJ-BSP seems restricted to two to three seats with large SC populations. Their seven seats largely came from the Bilaspur-Janjgir region.
One of the reasons for the Congress picking Baghel as CM seemed to be his OBC identity. Others argue caste politics is not as entrenched in Chhattisgarh as in the rest of the Hindi heartland, especially with a tribal population of over 30%. In any case, after the Assembly polls, the Congress has focused on farmers rather than the OBC narrative.