Forty kilometres separate the dusty, bustling town of Jagdalpur, the biggest in Bastar range, from the Chitrakote waterfalls, considered Chhattisgarh’s “Niagara Falls”. It is in this area that the Congress and BJP are poised for battle again, in the second bypoll in Bastar in two months. Yet, along the 40-km stretch, there is a sense that only one party is contesting the election.
From posters of Congress candidate Rajman Benjam, to flags on roadsides, to a stream of bikes campaigning, the Congress seems to have the headwind. In contrast, apart from a few billboards and two flags fluttering over shops in Lohandiguda, there is little to show that the BJP is putting up a fight. The bypoll was necessitated after MLA Deepak Baij contested the Lok Sabha polls and won the seat — one of only two MPs that the Congress has in the state with 11 Lok Sabha seats. But with Dantewada seat also going to the Congress in September, the party seems to have a chance to increase its tally from 68 to 69 in the 70-member Assembly.
A primary factor working on the ground for the Congress is that Chitrakote is home to Lohandiguda, where the Congress in its initial days in the state government announced it would return to farmers the land acquired for a Tata steel plant that never materialised.
The CPI also fought a long battle for the return of land, and one of its principal figures, Hidmo Ram, is standing for election. However, Sonnu Korsa, a resident, said, “Some villages will always vote for CPI. But that is it. While for many years the Congress and even Baij was in the Tata camp and against us, it is clear that the Congress helped in the return of the land. Also, they are now the state government, what is the point of voting for anyone else?” Issues of failure to keep promises and petty corruption are being used as arguments against the Congress, but sources within the BJP said they were far too divided a camp to take advantage of that.
While a frontrunner for the seat was Vinayak Goel, the BJP ticket has gone to former MLA Lacchu Kashyap. “Benjam was meant to divide the Congress, but their house is largely in order. The BJP is fighting among themselves,” a BJP leader said.
With 11 Bastar MLAs in the Congress arsenal, and a win in Dantewada, the party is in pole position. The new PCC chief Mohan Markam has camped in Bastar along with other leaders, with regions distributed among themselves. A senior leader said, “Where are the BJP leaders? All of them from the area suffered humiliating defeats. How will they ask for votes?”