A test run in Chhattisgarh

Print edition : December 05, 2003

A commendable record in developmental activities and the confusion in the BJP may help the Ajit Jogi-led Congress(I) government win another term.

in Raipur

Chief Minister Ajit Jogi.-SHAJU JOHN

BOTH the Bharatiya Janata Party and the Congress(I) describe the November-December Assembly elections as the "semi-final" for the next Lok Sabha elections. This is true, more than anywhere else, in Chhattisgarh, which is going to provide a "test run" for the BJP's "Indian vs foreigner" political campaign. If the "tribal vs non-tribal" slogan targeting Chief Minister Ajit Jogi succeeds, the BJP will have reason to be optimistic about the viability of the other slogan in the Lok Sabha elections. In the present round of polls, Chhattisgarh is the only State where Assembly elections are being held for the first time. The outcome will depend on what influences voters at large, development or disputes like who is a "fake tribal" and who is a "genuine tribal".

One thing that strikes a visitor approaching Raipur by air is the plethora of small and big waterbodies that dot the entire landscape. Even inside Raipur city, one comes across big and small ponds at frequent intervals, all brimming with water. It makes one wonder about the water crisis in Chhattisgarh that one had heard about before. Inquiries in Raipur reveal that these waterbodies came up in the last three years, ever since the new State was carved out of Madhya Pradesh. Symbolically called Jogi Dabris (small ponds), over 60,000 such ponds have come up in the State. Several existing ones have been repaired. The result is that the State has been rid of its infamous water shortage.

One anticipates bad roads in Raipur; after all, it was part of Madhya Pradesh until three years ago, where stories about bad roads abound. Raipur, though, is a pleasant surprise. Travel even farther from Raipur, towards Bilaspur, Jaspur, or Jagdalpur, the roads are in good condition. The figures are revealing. The government used to build or repair over 1,200 km of road every year before the State was created. Now 13,000 km of road has either been added or repaired.

Qualitative and quantitative changes are visible on the education front too. The State had only one agricultural college and no dental college before its creation, now it boasts 24 and two respectively; the State had only four universities earlier, now there are seven, apart from 28 private universities. The State did not have a school that offered the Central Board of Secondary Education (CBSE) curriculum earlier, now it has 108. There were only 382 secondary schools earlier, now there are 587. Over 100 more higher secondary schools have been opened in the last three years. While there was only one medical college earlier, the government has added one more and also opened six paramedical training institutions.

The government has taken several major initiatives for the advancement of the agricultural sector. The State is a major producer of rice. Earlier farmers used to travel 35 to 40 km and pay Rs.20 to Rs.25 a quintal as transportation charges to reach mandis at their respective district headquarters. Now societies have been opened for every four or five villages where the farmers can sell their produce at the government-fixed prices. They not only save the transportation cost, but get better prices. There were only 100 mandis earlier, now there are over 1,500 societies. The government has also trained and encouraged farmers to go in for cultivation of spices, medicinal plants, vegetables, fruits and other horticultural items.

Nationalist Congress Party leader Vidya Charan Shukla.-SANDEEP SAXENA

The expenditure on developmental activities has been possible because the government has drastically cut down on non-developmental activities. It has closed 52 of the 60 public sector enterprises (PSEs), reduced the number of government departments from 54 to 18 and closed several departmental headquarters. The expenditure on the administrative infrastructure has been reduced from 70 per cent to 32 per cent of the State's revenue, making the money spent on salaries and so on available for development.

Chief Minister Ajit Jogi is confident of coming back to power. He told Frontline: "The kind of development that has taken place, people could not even have imagined earlier. It has been seen, felt and appreciated. I am fully informed, that is why I know what needs to be done for the people. We are coming back with an overwhelming majority." He keeps a close watch on the Ministers too. "I ask nothing from my Ministers; only performance. I hold them responsible for their work," he says.

Ajit Jogi has no reason to worry if elections are actually fought and won on the basis of issues of development. The BJP grudgingly accepts his contribution to development but adds that a lot of it has been facilitated because of Central funding. It has been harping on only one issue - Ajit Jogi's "fake tribal" status. But people's responses indicate that the issue is fizzling out. "All this is only natural at the time of elections. It is for those in Delhi to bother about. For us the only thing that matters is that he is working for the people," said one resident of Gurhi village, which falls in the Mandir Hasaud constituency.

Gurhi is the native village of Union Minister and BJP leader Ramesh Bais, who is also one of the probable chief ministerial candidates. His brother Shyam Bais lost three times to the Congress(I)'s Shyamnarayan Sharma, the State's Higher Education Minister, in the constituency. Actually, if the Congress(I) has an edge in this constituency, it is because of Sharma. "Hamarey sukh dukh ka saathi hai (he is our companion in our sorrow and happiness)," one resident of Gurhi said about Sharma. The BJP seems to have sensed Sharma's popularity, for it has replaced Bais with Shobharam Yadav, in the hope that he will be able to win the support of the substantial Yadav population there.

One thing that is going in favour of the Congress(I) is the support it enjoys among the tribal people. The Scheduled Tribes (S.Ts), who constitute 34 per cent of the State's population, remain steadfastly committed to the Congress(I), not so much because of Jogi but more because of Indira Gandhi, who is some sort of a cult figure in the State. Besides, the S.Ts also value the work done by the Congress(I). "Kaam sahi hona chahiye (they should work for us). We have been voting for the Congress(I) for decades. They have done a lot of work for us. There is no problem here. There is a school, a hospital. People are happy, nobody is dying of hunger and everyone has work. What more should we look for," asks Prem Singh Dhruv, a tribal person and the postmaster of Seerpur village post office. Sudesh Kumar Pulharia of Mahasamund airs the same sentiment. "The Congress(I) has given us our livelihoods. Why should they not be re-elected," he asks. Sudesh works as a casual labourer and is satisfied with the performance of the Jogi government.

The Scheduled Castes (S.Cs), which constitute 14 per cent of the State's population, also largely favour the Congress(I). "Jogi ko bane rehna chahiye (Jogi should continue as Chief Minister). Ever since he has come, some work or other has been going on," says Mangaldas Gaekwad, who belongs to an S.C. community.

Another factor that seems to help the Congress(I) is the strong leadership it has at various levels in the State. For example, take Mahasamund, which is represented by Shyam Charan Shukla in the Lok Sabha. Shukla has a good image and has initiated and overseen a lot of developmental work in the area. Apparently, Congress(I) candidates contesting in Assembly constituencies that form part of the Mahasamund Lok Sabha constituency would have an edge over the BJP candidates. In the Rajim Assembly constituency, the Congress(I) candidate, Amitesh Shukla, S.C. Shukla's son, seems to be way ahead of his BJP rival Chandulal Sahu. "Here nobody else, but Amitesh Shukla can win," says Sadhoram Sahu, a tailor. According to him and others like Parsu Ram, a kabadiwala, Balram Sen, a barber, and Pradip Shukla, a schoolteacher, the work done by Amitesh Shukla should see him through. "It is a walkover for Amitesh Shukla," says Pradip Shukla.

BJP Legislature Party leader Nand Kumar Sai.-A.M. FARUQUI

THE BJP, on the other hand, has no credible leadership in the State. This is the reason why the party has not yet announced its chief ministerial candidate, and this seems to be weighing the party down. Even those who do not want Jogi to return to power and want to vote for the BJP are confused because they do not know who would become the Chief Minister. According to Ratan Lal, a farmer from Parsada village in Mahasamund, a staunch BJP supporter, Jogi should be removed. But what baffles him is the fact that there is no guarantee that the one who replaces him will be better. "Not projecting their candidate is going to damage the BJP," says Ratan Lal.

However, the BJP leadership is still not able to see the ground reality. "The leadership issue will be decided within 24 hours [after the elections]. The MLAs and the Central leaders will decide. It [not projecting a chief ministerial candidate] was done as part of a strategy and the result is that there is no infighting, the party is united, and there is collective campaigning," says State BJP president Dr. Raman Singh, himself an aspirant for the top post.

The state of confusion in the BJP is evident from the fact that BJP Legislature Party leader Nand Kumar Sai, who had already filed his nomination from Tapkara, was asked to contest against Jogi in the Marwahi constituency. Sai lost to Jogi in the Raigarh Lok Sabha constituency in 1989 by a margin of over 5,000 votes. Moreover, Marwahi, from where Jogi contested his first Assembly election after becoming Chief Minister, was vacated by a BJP MLA in his favour. He won the seat by a margin of over 50,000 votes against the BJP's Amar Singh Khusro. Interestingly, Sai's daughter Priyam and her husband had joined the Congress(I) with great fanfare when the BJP National Executive meeting was held in Raipur in July.

One factor that could have damaged the Congress(I)'s prospects to some extent - the presence in the fray of the Nationalist Congress Party (NCP), which got a boost with Congress(I) leader V.C. Shukla joining it - has also fizzled out. The NCP is only a marginal player and has not many supporters even in areas that were once supposed to be strongholds of Vidya Charan Shukla. Apparently, the people of Mahasamund, whom Shukla represented seven times in the Lok Sabha, too have turned against him. "What has Vidya Charan Shukla done for Chhattisgarh? In fact, he was always opposed to the creation of the State. He got votes because of the Congress(I)," say Shitla Prasad, who describes himself as a "Congressi by birth", in Mahasamund. The Congress(I), realising the mood of the people, has gathered enough ammunition to attack V.C. Shukla. It has collected all his speeches and statements against the demand for a separate State and is giving them wide publicity. "The NCP will not cross double digit," says Congress(I) spokesperson Shailen Nitin Trivedi.

The BJP, however, seems to be hoping that V.C. Shukla would cut into Congress(I) votes and ultimately pave the way for a hung Assembly. In this eventuality, the BJP is banking on support from the NCP because of Shukla's ambition to become the Chief Minister. In fact, party insiders disclosed that this was one reason why the party had not declared its chief ministerial candidate. In case NCP support is required, V.C. Shukla might press for the post and will have to be obliged, a la Mayawati.

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