The Kairana bypolls and the beginnings of an Opposition unity have reignited hopes of a change in Chhattisgarh after 15 years of BJP rule. In July 2017, the Congress brought in P L Punia as general secretary in-charge of the state, nearly 18 months to go for the polls. In a freewheeling interview, he speaks to The Indian Express about why coalitions are very much on the cards:
The Congress has lost the past three Assembly elections very narrowly. What is different this time?
In the three earlier elections, 2003, 2008 and 2013, the Congress was not united. There were people openly talking about opposing certain candidates. The margin between the BJP and Congress was just 0.73 per cent. But those who used to betray us are no longer with us.
You mean the Jogis?
Yes. And the rest of the team is united… Had we fought the last three elections unitedly… even 2003… we would have formed the government.
Unlike in other states that will go to polls with Chhattisgarh, like Madhya Pradesh and Rajasthan, here the Congress’s senior leadership, whether Bhupesh Baghel or T S Singhdeo or Charan Das Mahant, doesn’t have an appeal outside their areas of influence.
Bhupesh Baghel has been fighting this government tooth and nail, organising agitations. So it is not proper to say he is limited to Durg or Raipur. Dr Mahant has been a Union minister. As leader of the Opposition in the Assembly, T S Singhdeo leads the attack on the government. Even if you assume (they are) satrap leaders, that is an advantage. If all leaders can look after certain areas, that is an advantage.
But doesn’t the absence of a mass leader increase chances of jostling for the post of chief minister closer to elections?
Closer to election, the fight gets limited to winning your Assembly seat. Not the chief ministership… When we had a new state, Jogi was nowhere but was made the CM. In 2003, Raman Singh was not a BJP face but was made the CM. So it is not necessary that you project someone. It’s more important that everybody has hope, everybody thinks I stand a chance. Everyone is putting in the best effort.
In 2013, a vast majority of the sitting Congress MLAs who were given tickets lost. Have you learnt any lessons from that?
Definitely… The selection of candidates is a very, very important exercise. I think in the internal exercise (at the time) they were supposed to drop 18-19 MLAs but they were all repeated. Then out of 39, we lost most.
How much would a challenge be the Jogis for the Congress?
A certain section of the society has been completely opposed to him (Ajit Jogi)… the businessman, the upper castes, even, of late, the OBCs. That was one of the reasons the Congress lost many seats (earlier). Many also switched over to the BJP because we had a face they didn’t like. Now he is not with us, and there is no Congress leader towards whom they are allergic. So they are coming to us.
At a rally in Pendra, the Gondwana Gantantra Party shared the stage with you. In neighbouring Madhya Pradesh, the Congress is speaking to the BSP. The BSP has a 5 per cent vote share in Chhattisgarh. Is the Congress open to an anti-BJP alliance in Chhattisgarh?
Our national president Rahul Gandhiji has repeatedly said that to defeat the BJP, on case-to-case basis, from state to state, we will go in for alliances… As of today, we are concentrating on all 90 seats, assuming we are not going to have any alliance. At the moment, there are no discussions or proposals. But the decision was already taken when Rahul Gandhiji took over as party president. At the plenary session, it was part of the political resolution to have alliance with likeminded parties to defeat the divisive forces of the BJP.
What are the three issues the Congress will attack the Raman Singh government on?
I can see that the farmer issue is the number one priority. Then deprivation of Adivasi rights, denial of social schemes like pension, MNREGA to the poor. Plus youth and employment and education.
The BJP has been focused on Chhattisgarh. Prime Minister Narendra Modi came last month and is coming again in June. BJP president Amit Shah is scheduled to come too.
The BJP is feeling the jitters. We have a strong organisation, booth committees and para tola (ground-level workers) anubhag prabharis. That is a strong army of people.
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