Amid tight security, the first phase of the Chhattisgarh State Assembly election took place in 20 constituencies on November 7, with a 70.87 per cent voter turnout. This impressive turnout occurred despite a boycott call and reports of encounters between Naxalites and security forces in the Sukma and Kanker districts.
The 20 constituencies are spread across seven districts, with at least 12 in the Bastar region, which is heavily affected by left-wing extremism. The four other districts involved are Rajnandgaon, Mohla-Manpur-Ambagarh Chowki, Kabirdham, and Khairagarh-Chhuikhadan-Gandai. The election will determine the fate of 223 candidates, including 25 women. Campaigning for the first phase concluded on November 5. The remaining 70 seats in the 90-member Chhattisgarh Assembly will have voting on November 17, with the vote counting scheduled for December 3.
As the first phase of voting concludes, the two principal political parties in the State, the Congress and the BJP, are embroiled in a bitter conflict over allegations and counter-allegations of financial corruption and the use of illegal money for poll expenditures. In recent months, the State has witnessed several raids by the Economic Directorate (ED), Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI), and Income Tax (IT) department. The incumbent Chief Minister Bhupesh Baghel and some national party leaders have criticised these raids as an attempt to influence the election in favour of the BJP.
Over a month ago, the ED seized assets worth Rs 417 crore in connection with a money laundering case, claiming that the funds, linked to the Mahadev Book Online, an illegal betting app, were intended for distribution among bureaucrats and politicians in the poll-bound State. During a recent rally in Durg district, Prime Minister Narendra Modi questioned the Congress about its alleged links with accused individuals in Dubai.
Recently, the BJP shared a video on social media in which a person claiming to be the real owner of the now-banned Mahadev App alleged that he had paid Rs 508 crore to Chief Minister Bhupesh Baghel for election-related expenses. The ED issued a statement confirming its investigation into the alleged payment. While the BJP-led central government banned 21 illegal betting apps, including Mahadev, on November 5, Chief Minister Baghel questioned the delay in the ban, asserting that the issue had been raised with the centre for the past two years. Bhagel also questioned the BJP’s connections with the app’s promoters. Meanwhile, Union Minister of State for Electronics and Information Technology, Rajeev Chandrasekhar, denied claims that the State government had requested a ban on the Mahadev betting app.
On November 7, during a rally in Chhattisgarh’s Surajpur district, Prime Minister Narendra Modi targeted Chief Minister Bhagel, known as ‘Kaka’ (uncle) in the State, over the alleged Mahadev betting app scam with the slogan “30 take kakka, khule aam satta” (30 per cent commission, open betting). Modi accused the Congress of being unsuccessful in containing Naxalism in the State and also discussed the recent killings of BJP workers and leaders by Naxalites.
During the initial phase on November 7, the highest turnout until 5 p.m. was reported in the Khairagarh-Chhuikhadan-Gandai district, with 76.31 per cent of people voting. The lowest voting percentage was reported in Bijapur district, with only 40.98 per cent of votes cast.
While political observers have anticipated a bipolar contest between the incumbent Congress and the BJP, other parties in the fray include BSP, AAP, CPI, CPI(M), Chhattisgarh Janata Congress Jogi, Hamar Raj Party, Gondwana Gantantra Party, and Johar Chhattisgarh Party.
Both the Congress and the BJP have expressed confidence in new faces during the distribution of tickets. In addition to the other constituencies where voting took place on the same day, all eyes are on Rajnandgaon, where BJP leader and former Chief Minister Raman Singh is contesting against Congress’s Girish Dewangan, a close confidante of incumbent Chief Minister Bhupesh Baghel, who is contesting for the first time.
In some Naxal-infested areas like Bhairamgarh and Chikla blocks, villagers objected to receiving an indelible ink mark on their fingers after casting their vote. They defied the boycott call, reaching polling stations using their own means, and even walking long distances of up to 10 kilometres to cast their votes. Earlier, the Chhattisgarh election office had reportedly written to the Election Commission of India to consider exempting the use of indelible ink to ensure voter safety.
In addition to its “Chhattisgarhi pride” project, which includes soft Hindutva and the popularity of Chief Minister Baghel, the Congress has primarily relied on a series of schemes aimed at the welfare of farmers, tribals, and the poor, who constitute a majority in nearly 70 Assembly constituencies of the State. On the other hand, the BJP, which hasn’t declared any Chief Minister candidate in this election, has focussed on criticising the Congress for unfulfilled election promises made in 2018, corruption, economic development, and women’s safety, among other issues.
The Congress came to power in Chhattisgarh in 2018 after 15 years of BJP rule. Shortly after taking office, Chief Minister Bhagel waived approximately Rs 9000 crores of farm loans and Rs 350 crores of irrigation tax. This time, Chief Minister Bhagel has promised to repeat the farm loan waiver if elected. The party has also promised a state-level caste census, procurement of 20 quintals of paddy per acre, and housing for homeless residents.
Among its many assurances, the BJP has also promised a higher paddy price, although it doesn’t seem to have many takers due to the party’s failure to fulfil a similar promise in 2013.