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Chhattisgarh: BJP relies on old guards to wrest power from Congress

After suffering a humiliating defeat in the 2018 assembly polls in Chhattisgarh, the BJP effected a complete purge and changed candidates in all the Lok Sabha seats in the state in the 2019 parliamentary polls. Ten sitting MPs, including Union Minister Vishnu Deo Sai and Abhishek Singh, son of three times chief minister Raman Singh, were dropped. The strategy worked, and the BJP managed to retain nine out of the 11 Lok Sabha seats from the state.

Fast forward to 2023. As it attempts to recapture power from the Congress in assembly elections next month, the party has shown far less appetite to take risks.

In sync with the template followed in other poll-bound states, the BJP has asked its sitting Lok Sabha MPs in Chhattisgarh to enter the fray. Vijay Baghel, the Durg MP, is challenging his uncle Bhupesh Baghel, the chief minister of the state’s Congress government since 2018. The party gave tickets to three other MPs including the Minister of State for Tribal Affairs, Renuka Singh, and its state unit chief Arun Sao.

Otherwise, despite much hullabaloo, the BJP in Chhattisgarh has had to repose fin aith in the old guards. Raman Singh is again contesting from Rajnandgaon. Most of his ministers, who lost in the last elections, have been accommodated. The sitting MLAs too, except for a few exceptions, have made it to the BJP’s final list of candidates. The party perhaps assessed that they could cause more damage if benched.

That begs an obvious question. To wrest power back from the Congress, what is it that the BJP is offering to the electorate – both in terms of narrative and leadership – that could make it look different from the 2018 elections?

In 2023, the biggest catchment area for the opposition in Chhattisgarh lies in the tribal-dominated north and southern districts. The Congress won 11 out of the 12 seats in Bastar in 2018 and managed a clean sweep in all the 14 constituencies up north in Sarguja. The BJP has tried to make inroads in these areas, which send 25 of the 90 MLAs to the state assembly. The party’s central leadership takes credit for curbing the ultra-leftist insurgency in these areas.

Sandwiched between Sarguja and Bastar is the rice bowl of Chhattisgarh – Durg, Bilaspur, and Raipur divisions, which together constitute 64 seats. It is here – in the rural seats dominated by land-owning backward communities like Kurmis and Sahus – that the real battle for the state assembly will be fought.

Led by Raman Singh, an upper caste Rajput for 15 years, the BJP since the creation of Chhattisgarh in 2000 was not able to develop alternative OBC leadership in the state. That vacuum persists even today. By fielding Vijay Baghel against the CM, the BJP has sought to reach out to the intermediary castes, which form the largest voting bloc. The party hopes to make inroads among the Sahu votes in the central belt as Tamradhwaj Sahu of the Congress remains the CM in waiting. Targeting Bhupesh Baghel on alleged corruption, especially in government schemes for farmers, is aimed at striking a chord with this segment.

The BJP is also relying on the division of votes which are traditionally aligned to the Congress. The BSP and the Gondwana Gantantra Party are fighting in alliance to mobilize the SC and the ST votes. The Congress’s rebel Arvind Netam’s Hamar Raj Party is another contender for Tribal votes that can damage the ruling party’s prospects.

Then there is Janta Congress Chhattisgarh, the party formed by former chief minister Ajit Jogi, who was popular among the Dalit-Satnami voters. The party managed to poll more than seven per cent of votes in 2018 to win five seats. But, after Jogi’s death, the party is in shambles and the BJP has to guard against Satnamis returning to the Congress and thus compensating for the anti-incumbency attritions.

(Published 27 October 2023, 19:12 IST)

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