THERE ARE five days to go for polling, and fluttering on top of homes in Rajnandgaon are flags of both the BJP and the Congress. Then there are massive billboards, mostly of the BJP, with the slogan “Raman par vishwas, kamal dang vikas (Trust in Raman, lotus means progress)”.
In most of these boards, is an image of the late former prime minister A B Vajpayee. Below, on the streets of Rajnandgaon, too, the shadow of Vajpayee looms. But the mention of the BJP’s leading light is not just by his own party but also his niece Karuna Shukla, the Congress candidate against Chhattisgarh Chief Minister Raman Singh.
Shukla was part of the BJP for 34 years, when she fought and won Lok Sabha elections as well. But sidelined by the party in 2013, she joined the Congress. She has since fought elections for the Congress but lost, with a large part of her new tenure marked by anger against the BJP on their “treatment of Vajpayee”.
In the months leading to the campaign, and after Vajpayee’s death on August 16, Shukla has been vocal against the BJP’s “asti kalash” campaign, calling it a political stunt over a legend’s death. This anger is now visible in her Rajnandgaon campaign.
As she goes from mohalla to mohalla, hoping to pull off what would be an unlikely upset, Shukla tells people that “those who could not honour their seniors and mentors cannot be trusted”.
Speaking to The Indian Express, Shukla said, “Atalji is not a votebank like the BJP thinks. He is a principle and a set of values. For ten years when he was unwell, the BJP leaders didn’t even look at him. One poster of him wasn’t put up by Raman Singh during the Rajyotsav in a state he created, and now they remember him. This is what I tell people.”
On the other side, asked about what he wanted to tell Karuna Shukla, Raman Singh, whose son Abhishek Singh is Rajnandgaon MP, claims she gave up the values that Vajpayee stood for when she joined the Congress.
But Vajpayee aside, Shukla is fighting allegations that she has been “paradropped” to fight against Raman Singh. Rameshwar Singh, a grocery shop owner at the main market, said, “I wanted to vote against the BJP government this time. But Shukla has come from outside and won’t be able to win. I might rethink my position now.”
Shukla points out that Singh, too, is not a native of Rajnandgaon, and is essentially from Kawardha, and fought elections only after he was made Chief Minister in a bypoll in 2003. “He came from 120 km away and I come from 70 km away. I have travelled and worked for the state, and this is only something the BJP is spreading,” she said.
With the urban parts of Rajnandgaon voting almost entirely for Raman Singh in 2013, aiding him in his 35,866-margin win, Shukla is trying to bring women to her side by attacking the government over the sale of liquor, and the youth on issues of unemployment.
Although BJP leaders are confident that Singh will come through, some admit that they may have to be “careful”, especially in the rural areas. “Where we have to work is the rural areas. The farmers of Rajnandgaon are aggressive, and we will have to spend time. But in Rajnandgaon, we have good teams that are working on the ground, and it is clear there will only be one winner, which is the Chief Minister,” a BJP worker said.
If Rajnandgaon itself is a prestige battle for Raman Singh, the six seats in the district that will go to polls in the first phase are important for both the BJP and the Congress.
For the BJP which holds only two of the four seats, it is key to prey on any anti-incumbency against Congress MLAs and turn the tables in the district to offset the losses because of voter fatigue in other parts of the state.
The Congress, meanwhile, is confident of things staying the way they are, with them replacing two candidates. One of those seats, Khujji, has been given to a new face, Channi Sahu, the wife of influential farmer leader Madan Sahu. Madan Sahu and Sudesh Tikam of the Zila Kisan Sangh have routinely rallied farmer support across the district, often bringing as many as 50,000 farmers to the district headquarters for protests.
The Congress is confident of that support transferring to them, and preventing a wave against its MLAs. A Congress strategist said, “Even in the Rajnandgaon seat, if the farmers rally behind the Congress, then even Raman Singh may begin to get a little worried.”