Sitting in front of his grocery shop outside Batauli, in Chhattisgarh’s Surguja district, on a plastic chair, Keshav Singh constantly waved his hands in front of his face. Even two years ago, Singh sat much more comfortably, with National Highway-43 in front of him — a smooth, black-tarred road — accentuating the beauty of the hills of North Chhattisgarh around him. Now, he barely sees them, his vision blurred by the dust and smoke that from trucks, and a broken road.
With elections in two weeks, Keshav faces a dilemma: “Who do I blame? We have a Congress MLA here, in Sitapur constituency, but a BJP government at the Centre. Maybe the MLA should have raised our voice more, but shouldn’t the roads be maintained by the government?”
Much like the conflicting questions in Keshav Singh’s mind, North Chhattisgarh, which has 14 seats, saw a neck and neck contest between the BJP and the Congress in 2013, each party winning seven seats. The area is seen as divided into three parts: of eight seats in Surguja division, the Congress won seven in 2013, while BJP swept all six in Koria and Jashpur districts.
But the BJP, senior leaders told The Indian Express, is trying to make inroads into North Chhattisgarh to return to its seat tallies of 2008 and 2003: nine and 10, respectively.
While the BJP will need to win as many in this region to offset any chance of anti-incumbency in the plains, a senior BJP leader said, “So far, that is proving quite difficult.”
For the Congress, the dangers lie in dissent from within on seat selection, and in dealing with anti-incumbency against MLAs who have won multiple times from their constituencies — such as Amarjeet Bhagat, Khelsai Singh and even Brihaspat Singh, as one senior Congress leader said. “There was talk of changing some of the seven MLAs here, but we have switched the constituencies of the MLAs of Lundra and Samri. In the rest, the alternatives were found not winning,” the Congress leader said.
The party’s assessment is that organisation is strong here, “and our best-case scenario in Surguja division is seven out of eight again. Our worst-case scenario is four,” the leader said. “But in North Chhattisgarh (overall), that will be offset by gains we make in Koria and Jashpur.”
For the BJP, much of the problem is similar, the first task being holding on to seats it won five years ago. Except, the party is battling headwinds in anti-incumbency against its MLAs, and the BJP government in general.
In Pratappur, the one seat in Surguja that the BJP won, with the MLA, Ram Sewak Paikra, being made Home Minister, The Indian Express found much anger against government inaction on deaths and damage wrought by elephants, apart from rising prices.
Gopal Paikra of Bhaisamuda village said, “Paikra-ji should have raised our image in (state capital) Raipur. As Home Minister, he was number two in the Cabinet, but he became one of the most unimportant ministers, never speaking. It has shamed us. Anyway, there are (more important) issues such as gas and fuel prices, and paddy…”
In Jashpur and Koria districts, BJP leaders are aware it will be difficult to repeat a six-zero sweep. “There are still two weeks to fix things, but honestly, as things stand, it is the Congress that has the advantage in the region. It is more likely to hold on to its seats than we are, and can take a lead as well,” a senior BJP leader said.
Also important is a factor that the area has seen in 2003, when it favoured the BJP. From the BJP campaign that year, most people in North Chhattisgarh widely saw the late Dilip Singh Judeo, from the erstwhile royal family of Jashpur, as the CM. Judeo, a popular leader, was, however, hit with a purported bribery video scandal just before the elections. Raman Singh was picked as the CM, instead.
In 2003, the BJP swept North Chhattisgarh, winning 10 of 14 seats. Two policemen, standing beside the road near Darima, 15 km from Ambikapur, said, “Just like in 2003, this time people think T S Singhdeo, from the erstwhile royal family of Surguja, will be CM if the Congress wins. If someone from here becomes CM, a lot of good will happen for the region. He (Singhdeo) has a hold over this area. So many people will vote for Congress.”