The concluding round of the two-phase State Assembly election in Chhattisgarh witnessed a voter turnout of 68.18 per cent on Friday, November 17. A total of 958 candidates, including political heavyweights like incumbent Chief Minister Bhupesh Baghel, his deputy T.S. Singh Deo, eight State ministers, and four Members of Parliament, contested for 70 seats in the 90-member Chhattisgarh Assembly.
The polling for the first phase was held on November 7 for 20 constituencies, during which many villages in the Bastar region, known for the presence of Naxals, voted for the first time since India’s independence. The results are scheduled to be announced on December 3.
In the final phase, the Dhamtari district recorded the highest voter turnout at 79.89 per cent, while the Raipur district saw the lowest voter turnout at 58.83 per cent, according to the Election Commission. At the Bilbhadar polling station in Sihawa Assembly constituency in Dhamtari district, a specially designated tribal polling station was set up for the vulnerable Kamar tribal group. A jawan of the Indo-Tibetan Border Police (ITBP) was killed in a blast triggered reportedly by Naxals in the Gariaband district when a polling team escorted by security personnel was returning after the voting concluded.
Chhattisgarh has been witnessing a fierce contest between the incumbent Congress and the BJP. The high-decibel campaign for the second phase saw Prime Minister Narendra Modi, Union Home Minister Amit Shah, and Uttar Pradesh Chief Minister, among other BJP leaders, including party’s national president J.P. Nadda, attacking incumbent Chief Minister Baghel over alleged corruption charges related to the Mahadev betting app row, the rise in religious conversions, and Naxal violence. The Congress’ star campaigners for the election included Rahul Gandhi and Priyanka Gandhi, among others.
Although the State Congress, which was voted to power in 2018 after 15 years of BJP rule, has been playing the Hindu card, and has promised a caste census to counter the BJP’s Hindutva ideology, the BJP leaders during public rallies accused the Congress of anti-Hindu bias and appeasement politics. The BJP manifesto, labelled as “Modi Ki Guarantee”, has promised to take the people of the State on a visit to the Ram temple, which is being constructed in Ayodhya, if the party wrestles power from the Baghel-led government.
Interestingly, the Congress has pledged to provide free wood for cremation in urban areas if it wins the election. Political analysts believe this is the first time a political party has made such a promise in its election manifesto.
As campaigning for the second phase of the election drew to a close, both the Congress and the BJP unleashed a barrage of populist promises, keeping voters busy calculating the potential direct cash and other benefits on offer. A comparative analysis of the manifestos and announcements of the Congress and the BJP revealed that the Congress has outdone the BJP in terms of lucrative offers in its bid to garner votes, raising serious concerns about the potential negative impact on the State’s exchequer and financial planning.
While the BJP has promised a direct cash transfer of Rs 12,000 per year to all married women (women make up nearly 50 per cent of the electorate in Chhattisgarh), the Congress has upped the ante by announcing an amount of Rs 15,000 to every woman who has attained the age of 18, suggesting that this promise could be a game-changer. Congress leaders have emphasised in their rallies that every “Maa, beti, aur behan (mother, daughter, and sister)” could avail of this benefit if the Congress retains power after the election. The BJP, however, has countered with an offer of Rs 1.5 lakh for newborn girls from families below the poverty line.
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Among other commitments, the Congress has also announced 200 units of free electricity per month to all households. However, the BJP has not offered anything on this front. In contrast to the BJP’s promise of free health services up to Rs 10 lakh for Chhattisgarh residents, the Congress offer has no such ceiling, and has extended free health care even in the case of accidents under the Chief Minister’s Special Health Assistance Scheme. Both parties have promised centres for subsidised medicines.
The Congress has promised a one-time farm-loan waiver that would cost around Rs 9,500 crore. It has also offered a loan waiver of nearly Rs 9,000 crore for Self Help Groups, which include 20-25 lakh women.
The election campaign has also witnessed a fierce competition between the Congress and BJP to woo low-income groups. The Congress has made more attractive promises for the procurement of paddy and other minor forest produce, targeting a significant population of farmers and tribals. While the BJP has pledged an annual amount of Rs 10,000 to landless farmers, the Congress has countered with an equivalent offer under the Rajiv Gandhi Landless Farmer Labourers Justice Scheme.
The BJP has announced free education from kindergarten to post-graduation, while the Congress has extended this promise to include students in higher and technical education. In a further attempt to outshine the Congress, both parties have pledged to provide a cooking gas cylinder for Rs 500 if voted to power.
In response to the BJP’s promises, Chhattisgarh Chief Minister Bhupesh Baghel taunted the party, stating on social media that, “Till two days ago, the BJP was terming as freebies whoever promised the same things. They have made some of the promises made by us.”
Interestingly, during the second phase of campaigning, Home Minister Amit Shah declined to respond to Baghel’s invitation to debate the achievements of the Congress-led State government. Baghel had posted a photograph showing a black sofa bearing the two leaders’ names, along with the message, “Please tell me the date and time…”
Political analysts believe that the performance of the Modi government at the centre and Baghel in Chattisgarh are not major issues in this election. “This election seems to be all about whether you call it freebies or welfarism, depending upon which income group you belong to. All other issues seem to have been pushed to the margins,” said Sunil Kumar, Editor, Daily Chhattisgarh. He added, “The Congress promises, most of which are without any caveat unlike the BJP, seem more attractive and it is likely to give an edge to the party’s candidates”.