Vikram Chouhan bought a passenger mini-van two years ago, and since then has contracted it out for hire — to farmers for transporting paddy to warehouses, and to transport logs of wood or ceramic tiles. Except now, he says he may well have bought a bullock cart instead.
“What’s the use when diesel is so costly? I will have to leave the van at home if this continues. I voted for the BJP, but not this time. They don’t care about us anymore,” Chouhan, 43, tells a group of three at a tea stall outside Chhattisgarh’s Bilaigarh, an assembly constituency reserved for SC candidates.
Immediately, there is a question in response: “But who else will you vote for? Is baar toh Congress bhi hai, aur Jogi aur haathi saath hai (This time, there’s the Congress too, and Ajit Jogi and the elephant — the BSP’s election symbol — are together)?” Chouhan shrugs: “We will see.”
With Chhattisgarh voting in two phases, on November 12 and 20, its 10 reserved SC seats have come into sharp focus. For, in a state where the margins of victory are small, it was the BJP’s performance in these seats — nine of ten — that had made the difference last time. This was an increase from the four that it won from these seats in 2003 and five in 2008, as the party took 49 of the 91 seats in 2013, leaving the Congress behind at 39.
This time, The Indian Express travelled to the ten constituencies to find that while there is a definite sense of voter fatigue with the BJP, the joining of forces of Jogi’s Chhattisgarh Janata Congress (CJC) and the BSP has left several contests three-cornered, reducing the Congress advantage, and in some places opening up the possibility of the BJP candidate being re-elected.
These SC seats span 10 districts and cut across the heart of the central plains of the state that has been ruled by the BJP for the last 15 years. Here, the reasons for disaffection are both national and local.
Ratni Bai, 43, from Rahaud village under the Pamgarh constituency in Janjgir Champa district, was one of the beneficiaries of the Ujjwala Yojana, but says the rising price of gas has meant that she might return to the chulha. And while the nationwide protests against the changes to the SC/ST Prevention of Atrocities Act witnessed little unrest in the state, it has had a quiet impact in these districts.
“I have applied to so many places for a job, but there is none that this government has given. The SC/ST Act episode showed what the BJP feels towards Dalits. When there are no jobs anywhere, what if they take away reservation, too?” says Ramesh Nirmalkar, 24, who runs his family’s daily needs shop in Pamgarh.
If unemployment is an issue, failed promises are causing anger as well in this segment where most of the districts are dominated by farmers. For instance, even though the BJP has hurriedly announced a Rs-300 paddy bonus for the past two years, farmers say this falls short of the party’s promises in 2013.
“Then, they said they would give us Rs 2,400 per quintal of rice, Rs 2,100 support price and an annual bonus of Rs 300. They didn’t even give us the bonus for two years. Even with the bonus this year, the price we get is Rs 2,050 per quintal because they never increased the support price,” says Harish Purena, a paddy farmer in Arang.
A BJP worker from Nawagarh admits there are problems. “Some promises may have fallen short but by and large, lives have become better. People recognise that and have no problem with Chief Minister Raman Singh. But the problem is that after 15 years, there is voter fatigue. People want change. That is the difficulty,” he says.
The big question, however, is where these votes will go. The BSP has been a force to reckon with in these seats, with its votes tallying higher than the margin of victory in at least four constituencies, and winning more than 15,000 votes in four. In 2008 and 2003, it won two and one seat, respectively, and had an impact on several others. “If the BSP and the Congress had tied up here, we could even have faced a tally inverse of last time,” says the BJP worker.
But now, the CJC-BSP tie-up is being seen in some quarters as a viable alternative to the BJP. “Within the Congress, Jogiji has always been the leader of the Satnamis (an SC community). Now behenji (BSP chief Mayawati) is also fighting with him. They will represent us. Why should we not vote for them?” says Naresh Purena, a Satnami who owns a cycle shop in Pamgarh.
In Masturi, the one seat where Congress MLA Dilip Lahariya withstood the BJP tide in 2013, some question if he won because of Jogi’s support. “Now the CJC and BSP cadre are making sure people know that he is not with the Congress anymore,” says Krishna Tandon, who runs a dhaba at the main chowk at Masturi.
Traditionally, local leaders say, the BJP has enjoyed the support of OBCs, especially from the Sahu community. Senior Congress leaders say they expect to make a dent in this votebase because of local factors such as farming, and the fact that Jogi, a polarising factor among OBCs, has shifted.
“But we don’t expect this shift to be very big,” says a local BJP leader. “If Congress voters are convinced to vote for Jogi, and the BSP chips in, it will be a three-cornered contest in many seats among these ten, and several non-reserved ones like Akaltara. The Congress will definitely gain some seats, the question is how many. The BJP may scrape through in some, or the coalition may get some seats. This can reduce our damage.”
Over the next month, much can change. Despite anti-incumbency against its candidates and the state government, the BJP has changed only one of the nine candidates in the SC seats thus far, with Saraipali yet to be declared.
Much will depend on the selection of Congress candidates, too. The party is set to embark on an intensive campaign in these seats, attempting to stop any slide to the CJC-BSP, with senior leaders set to use one important detail that has emerged in the last week.
In February, Jogi had announced that he would fight Raman Singh from Rajnandgaon. Last week, Jogi said the compulsions of campaigning across Chhattisgarh meant he would not be able to do that. Congress spokespersons have since claimed this as evidence of a tie-up between the BJP and Jogi, and that any vote for the CJC-BSP coalition is a vote for the BJP. The efficacy and reach this message in the 10 SC seats may well decide the fate of the state.