Assembly Elections - Chhattisgarh

Brand Raman on test

Print edition : December 13, 2013

Chief Minister Raman Singh after casting his vote at a polling station at Kawardha on November 19. Photo: PTI

Security at a polling station in Bhairamgarh, in Bijapur district, in the Bastar region, on November 11. Voter turnout in the region was high despite threats from the Maoists. Photo: AFP

The Congress hopes for a miracle to bring to an end the 10-year rule of the BJP government under Raman Singh.

CHHATTISGARH witnessed a huge voter turnout in the two-phase polling to its 90-member legislature. The 18 constituencies that went to the polls on November 11, including those in the naxal-affected Bastar area, registered almost 77 per cent polling. The polling percentage on November 19 could go up to 80 per cent.

The ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) is hoping for a hat-trick in power and avers that the pro-incumbency factor had brought the voters out in such large numbers. The Congress Party, which was galvanised by the huge voter turnout in the first round and had hopes of ousting the Raman Singh-led BJP government, admitted that it had lost its momentum in the second round. “When we began, we certainly had an edge, but we lost out in the past few days. We could not keep up the momentum,” said a senior Congress leader.

The most important reason for this is the shadow of Ajit Jogi that fell on the party. Though the party did not project anyone as its chief ministerial candidate, Jogi, a former Chief Minister, was impressing upon voters that if the Congress came to power either he himself or somebody handpicked by him would become the Chief Minister. This alienated a large section of the voters. Jogi’s son Amit Jogi, an accused in a murder case, is contesting this time. The party’s dilemma is that it cannot openly contradict Jogi and thereby antagonise his supporters, who are substantially large in number. “But this has gone out against us as there are more people who hate Jogi than those who love him. He is one person who evokes extreme emotions, and we are paying a price for this,” said the senior leader.

In fact, when the poll process began, Chhattisgarh was one State where the Congress was most hopeful of coming back to power, riding the sympathy wave of the May 25 massacre of its leaders. Besides, Raman Singh had been in power for 10 years and it was natural for people to desire a change, especially if a clean alternative was promised. That, however, did not happen. The party failed to project a clean face, while the massacre failed to strike a chord with the people as it became clear that it was more a result of infighting in the party than anything else.

The BJP was quick to realise this and cash in on it. In the last few days of the campaigning, BJP leaders, including its prime ministerial nominee Narendra Modi, raked up the three years of Ajit Jogi’s “(mis)rule” and contrasted it with the 10 years under Raman Singh, and asked people to decide for themselves what they wanted.

“In any election, the final outcome can go either way depending on many last-minute factors, but we seem to have lost the momentum in the last two-three days of campaigning as our senior party leaders here could not effectively neutralise the BJP’s campaign against Jogi,” said another senior Congress leader. In fact, party president Charan Das Mahant’s last-ditch attempt to tarnish Raman Singh by accusing him of personal corruption to the tune of Rs.20,000 crore only amused voters. “The Congress wakes up to such corruption issues only 48 hours before the election. If corruption on such a large scale was happening over the last 10 years, why were they not acting as a responsible opposition all this while?” asked Suresh Kumar Chandrakar, a businessman in Raipur.

The Congress still pinned its hopes on a miracle that could suddenly swing voters to its side.

“People don’t pour out in such large numbers to vote for just anyone. Normally, they do it when they are angry and want to throw out the present regime. This is all the more evident as voters braved a call for poll boycott by the naxalites,” said Shailesh Nitin Trivedi, the party’s media committee chairman.

Indeed, a larger-than-usual voter turnout has always meant bad news for the ruling dispensation. Significantly enough, the Bastar area, which went to the polls on November 11, has been a clinching factor earlier, catapulting the BJP to power in 2003 and 2008: out of the 12 seats in Bastar, the BJP won nine and 11 respectively. There was an average 5 percentage point increase in the polling this time as opposed to 2008, with some constituencies registering a double-digit increase in voter turnout. Bijapur, for example, saw a 19 percentage point increase, over 2008. The polling percentage here went up to 48 per cent from 29 per cent in 2008. Yet another constituency, Bhanupratappur recorded a 12 per cent increase, 78 per cent now against 66 per cent in 2008. Keshkal, another naxalite stronghold, recorded a voter turnout of 83 per cent as against 72 per cent in 2008. Similarly, Narayanpur also recorded an increase of 11 percentage point, 72 per cent now against 61 per cent in 2008. Constituencies such as Chitrakot, Kanker, Bastar, and Mohlamanpur, all falling in the “red zone”, recorded increases between 7 and 10 percentage points. While this could have been facilitated by the heavy security arrangement, it could also have been on account of the people’s resolve to elect a government of their own choice. As a senior official of the Home Ministry put it, “the people have chosen the ballot over bullets”.

But this surge in voter turnout can tilt the balance in favour of the Congress party, say political observers. “We are hoping to increase substantially our tally in Bastar,” said the Congress’ Shailesh Nitin, emphasising that a victory in Bastar could prove to be a turning point for the party. Indeed, in a State like Chhattisgarh, where there are wafer-thin differences in the vote share—the Congress was merely 1.8 per cent behind the BJP in 2008—a small swing to this or that side can change the outcome.

But one thing that goes in favour of the BJP is that the Congress party, despite its valiant efforts, has not been able to tarnish Brand Raman. It has not been able to give one single credible reason why Raman Singh should go. “Raman Singh remains the poster boy of the BJP here. There is not one single reason why people would want him replaced,” said a political observer.

Maybe it is this knowledge that keeps the BJP camp smug. “The larger voter turnout is because of the pro-incumbency factor,” says Pankaj Jha, a member of the BJP’s election management committee and editor of its mouthpiece Deepkamal. According to him, the voters know that it is the Centre that is responsible for the rise in the prices of commodities like onion and fuel. “It is the anger against the Centre that the voters are expressing now,” he says. He may or may not be correct, but it remains a fact that in a closely contested election, which has turned out to be a Raman Singh versus Ajit Jogi fight, the former definitely has an edge.

Another factor that should worry the Congress is reports that rebels within the party could damage its prospects in at least 12 constituencies that went to the polls on November 19. “We have clearly failed to manage the dissidents,” a senior Congress leader admitted. But until counting on December 8, the Congress camp can nurture dreams of a miracle at the hustings.

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