Three months ago, the Congress swept to victory in the Chhattisgarh elections, winning 68 of 90 seats, defeating the BJP which was reduced to 15. In the days that followed, with their MLAs outflanking the Opposition in every segment, and a charged cadre, many within and outside the Congress saw the Lok Sabha elections as a foregone conclusion.
And yet, with just two days to go for the third and final phase in the state where seven seats will go to the polls, many within the party admit that “every seat has become a dogfight” — and “uncomfortably difficult”.
Over the last month, the BJP has run an extraordinary campaign, with no local issues. After taking the controversial decision to drop all 10 sitting MPs, and replace them with relative unknowns, the party has campaigned on one factor alone: Prime Minister Narendra Modi.
“When the decision came (to drop the MPs), everybody in the state unit was distraught. We thought we were at a disadvantage. But then, three things have happened. In the urban areas in particular, Modi is still immensely popular, so every candidate is getting that benefit.
Then, some of the leaders who were earlier annoyed and not helping in the campaign have realised that if Modi returns to the Centre, their careers might be finished. So seniors like Brijmohan Agrawal in Raipur, and even Raman Singh have campaigned extensively,” a senior BJP leader told The Indian Express.
“Also, our cadre began to sense the dissonance in the Congress campaign, and that they were weaker than was first thought. We really believe that forget just three, we could even win more seats than the Congress, if we win all the close seats,” the leader said. Click here for more election news
Senior leaders within the Congress said there were multiple factors that were causing their campaign to falter — local, political and even administrative. “One of the big issues that the BJP has raised at the ground level, in poor and tribal areas, is the notion that the government has stopped giving subsidised chana (gram) and salt. Chana is given at Rs 5 a kilo, and salt is given free. There was a tendering problem for chana before the Model Code of Conduct came into place, and a problem with the quality of salt which is why supply has been affected. But the BJP and RSS have gone around telling villagers that this has been stopped, and rice might be stopped, too. Everywhere our leaders go, this is the question being asked,” a senior Congress leader said.
On Sunday evening, three hours before campaigning came to an end, Chief Minister Bhupesh Baghel issued a small video address where he said the BJP was spreading “white lies”, that the two items had not been stopped, and that the Congress government would continue to give “high quality” chana and salt.
Among the seats the Congress is most worried about losing, are Durg and Surguja, which have an array of its MLAs and most powerful ministers. Sources said one of the factors affecting these seats are the remnants of a clumsy race to the Chief Minister’s position after the assembly victory, where Bhupesh Baghel, Tamradhwaj Sahu and TS Singhdeo were all contenders.
Durg, for instance, is the one seat the Congress won, incidentally by Tamradhwaj Sahu, in 2014, and now has four ministers including Home Minister Sahu and Chief Minister Baghel representing it. “But here, all is clearly not well. Durg is highly urban and Modi is a factor. Vijay Baghel, the BJP candidate, is the best out of their lot of 11. Importantly, it does not look like the senior ministers are working together completely, and that is hurting us. Each leader thinks losing Durg will look bad on the other, but in truth it will look bad on everyone,” a party leader said.
“In Surguja (north Chhattisgarh), where Singhdeo is from, we have all 14 MLAs. But a lot of the assembly campaign was around the idea that he would be Chief Minister. And there is anger that he isn’t, and that is being faced in the campaign. Eventually, we may win both seats, but it is very close, and it will be no surprise if we lose both,” the leader said.
There are also murmurs of dissent within the legislators themselves about the “centralisation” of power in the state leadership. “After the Vidhan Sabha win, Rahul Gandhi repeatedly said this was a team win, and everyone had worked for it. Even in his speeches, he still always takes the names of Baghel, Singhdeo and Sahu in the same breath. But is that what’s happening in the campaign? Baghel is both Chief Minister and PCC chief. Those that he is close to get favour, and those that aren’t don’t. He wants to make himself the biggest leader in Chhattisgarh, and isn’t taking people along. There is no incentive to put our hearts and souls into the campaign,” another Congress leader said.
Of the four seats that have already gone to the polls, the Congress believes that it will emerge victorious in at least three. While they count Bastar and Kanker as seats they are sure of, they believe at least one of Rajnandgaon and Mahasamund will fall in their kitty.
Asked about the third phase, a Congress leader said: “Every single seat is a dogfight. There are at least two seats that are very difficult to win, and at this point seem lost. And the remaining five are so close, it is difficult to judge. At the end of the day, the numbers could speak kindly for us. But, there is also the possibility, that didn’t seem to exist even a month ago, that they speak kindly for the BJP.”