Chhattisgarh

Even contest

Print edition : May 16, 2014

Chief Minister Raman Singh casting his vote in Rajnandgaon on April 17. Photo: PTI

When former Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee’s niece Karuna Shukla joined the Congress party in New Delhi. She is contesting as the Congress candidate in Bilaspur. Photo: Kamal Singh/PTI

Satyanarayan Sharma, former Minister and the Congress candidate in Raipur. Photo: Pavan Dahat

LOOKS like the BJP’s slogan in Chhattisgarh, “ ek aur ek gyarah” (one plus one makes eleven), implying that the Narendra Modi-Raman Singh team will sweep all the 11 Lok Sabha seats in the State, is likely to remain a pipe dream. The Congress has, surprisingly, burst back on to the electoral scene with renewed vigour and the contest looks evenly balanced.

In Chhattisgarh, the disappointment at Modi being declared the prime ministerial nominee ignoring the claims of Raman Singh, considered an equally capable administrator, who won his third consecutive victory in the previous Assembly elections, has upset not only the party cadre but the people at large, and the groundswell of resentment is clearly visible. While most people are indifferent to the prospect of Modi becoming the Prime Minister, those who are opposed to the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) are vocal about their opinion. In their view, the possibility of hard-line Hindutva elements emerging stronger in the State in case Modi becomes the Prime Minister is not a welcome scenario. They feel efforts should be taken to ensure that communal harmony is maintained in the State.

Interestingly, issues like development, corruption, scams, and price rise have taken a back seat, to be considered or ignored according to one’s political inclinations. The rift in the BJP was quite visible in the Durg parliamentary constituency, where huge posters featuring Modi and the BJP candidate Saroj Pandey were being removed, apparently because the Chief Minister objected to them. They were being replaced with those that also had Raman Singh’s picture in them. “Can he [Modi] win the elections on his own if the Chief Minister does not cooperate?” asked a State BJP leader, not wanting to be named. Interestingly, the contest in Durg is proving to be tough for the BJP because people feel that the candidate has not done anything for the constituency, nor has she been accessible to them. “She can only win if the Modi factor works for her,” said Mahendra Yadav, a cement trader in Durg. “She is extremely arrogant and does not mix with people. She is very unpopular that way,” said a teacher at Bhilai’s Delhi Public School.

On the other hand, the Congress candidate, Tamradhwaj Sahu, was mostly talked about in positive terms. People said that he was very accessible, had a good image and was extremely popular, not only in his own community but in society at large. People are also willing to overlook the corruption charges against the Congress-led UPA government at the Centre. And they are also willing to overlook the spiralling inflation because, “maintaining peace is more important than anything else,” said Sanjay Wadhwani, a confectioner in Durg. According to him, the State has never had any communal issues, but the prospect of the atmosphere getting vitiated cannot be ruled out in the event of Modi becoming Prime Minister.

The BJP has to battle not only the negativity of Modi’s image, but the ghost of the legendary L.K. Advani-Modi turf war. In Durg, on a day when Modi was to address a rally, pamphlets endorsing Advani as the party’s prime ministerial candidate made a mysterious appearance at the rally venue, indicating that a faction was determined to keep embarrassing Modi by pitting the party patriarch against him.

The pamphlets read: “Advani ne diya Chhattisgarh raaj, ab unhe dein pradhan mantri ka taaj” (Advani gifted us Chhattisgarh State, now crown him Prime Minister). The pamphlets carried pictures of Advani, Raman Singh and Saroj Pandey, who is the president of the BJP’s Mahila Morcha. Advani has often equated Modi with both Raman Singh and Madhya Pradesh Chief Minister Shivraj Singh Chouhan, saying these two also had similar administrative acumen, good development records and good credentials. Later, addressing the rallies, Modi talked about the pamphlets, saying it was a Congress conspiracy and urged people to ignore them. The BJP is finding the going tough in another constituency, Bilaspur, where former Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee’s niece Karuna Shukla is the Congress candidate. She, it may be recalled, had crossed over to the Congress during the Assembly elections of 2013 and had even campaigned against Raman Singh in the Rajnandgaon Assembly constituency. She had campaigned for Alka Mudaliyar, widow of the slain Congress leader Uday Mudaliyar, who was killed in the infamous Maoist attack on a Congress convoy that wiped out the entire State leadership in May last. Karuna Shukla had been in the BJP for about 25 years and her crossing over has come as a major embarrassment for the BJP, giving the Congress a convenient tool to attack the party.

The BJP has put up Lakhanlal Sahu, a local heavyweight of the powerful OBC community, to settle scores with Karuna Shukla, treating Bilaspur as a prestige issue. But local BJP workers are demoralised by the state of affairs and some local BJP leaders disclosed that many BJP workers were working for Karuna Shukla on the sly. “Old loyalties cannot vanish overnight,” he said. This makes Bilaspur a contest worth watching.

Polling for four seats was held in two phases on April 10 and 17. Elections for the remaining seven seats—Raipur, Durg, Bilaspur, Korba, Surguja, Raigarh and Janjgir-Champa—were held on April 24. According to State Congress leaders, the party has much better prospects this time because there are some very good candidates in the fray and the anti-incumbency factor against many BJP candidates, who have been sitting MPs for quite some time, is at work. In Raipur, for example, the going can be tough for the BJP’s Ramesh Bais, who has won the seat for the last five terms, because the Congress has fielded a good candidate, Satyanarayan Sharma, who was a Minister in undivided Madhya Pradesh. He has an impeccable image and hails from a family of educationists who have participated in the freedom struggle. He was always accessible to the people even when he was not an MLA or an MP. Many people said Sharma had a good chance of winning.

Interestingly, Sharma’s political career suffered after the State was created because of his opposition to Ajit Jogi (who viewed him as a rival and did everything to sideline him). But he now stands to gain for the same reason. Sounding upbeat not only about his own prospects, but of the party as a whole, Sharma says this time the party is in a good position to win at least six or even seven seats, as the candidates are good. “Since there is no Modi wave in Chhattisgarh, people will think about who would be good for them, who would be useful for them. People will elect those who would help them in times of crisis,” he says.

Another constituency where the contest is interesting is Korba, where Union Minister of State for Agriculture and former State Congress president Charandas Mahant is fighting hard to retain the seat. Political analysts say Mahant is facing stiff opposition because of his image of having done little for the State.

Chhattisgarh politics has always been bipolar, with the Congress and the BJP as the main players. The results here are important because the State will firmly establish whether there was a Modi wave or not. On the ground, not much of a wave is visible, even though BJP supporters say that Modi’s name has instilled a new confidence in them and that they will support a local candidate, even if he/she is not so good, “for the sake of Modi”.

Modi is not an unknown entity for the people of Chhattisgarh because he was the BJP’s organisation secretary in Chhattisgarh during 2000-01 and was also the general secretary in-charge afterwards. He is not such an enigma here as he might be in other parts of the country like Bihar or Tamil Nadu, and people can assess him much more rationally. “As far as development or corruption or scams are concerned, it is the same everywhere, so it is not much of a factor for us,” says Sachin Verma, a student in Durg, adding, “ Modi ke naam par vote padega, local candidate par nahin” (the people will vote for Modi, not for the local candidate). Surprisingly, even though the State has no decisive minority vote, there is no clear, visible consolidation of the Hindu votes either.

Chhattisgarh will definitely set a few trends and break a few established notions.

Purnima S. Tripathi

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