Chhattisgarh, which is celebrating its 23rd anniversary, is slated for a two phased poll on November 7 and 17, 2023. Over 2 crore voters would be exercising their franchise to elect 90 members to the State Legislative Assembly. 39 seats are reserved for Scheduled Tribes (29) and Scheduled Castes (10). As per the 2011 census, the total population of the state is 2.55 crore, of which around 38 percent are OBCs, 31 percent are STs, 16 percent General/Forward and 13 percent SCs. Over 90 percent of the people are followers of Hinduism and the rest belong to Christianity, Buddhism, Jainism and Sikhism.
The state has unique geographic and demographic features. Of the 33 districts, around 50 percent are Tribal dominated ones. With dense forests, steep hill-ranges, river-basins and deep valleys, large areas of the state remained backward and inaccessible for many years. The Adivasis, Dalits and other backward sections were the main occupants of such areas. There are more than 100 tribal castes in the state; the most prominent among them are Gond, Baiga, Munda, Muria, Halba, Korba, Oron, Abhuj-Maria etc. But many places, like Bhilai-Durg, Raipur, Bilaspur, Ambikapur, Jagadalpur, Korba, Raigarh, Rajnandgaon, etc., have developed as major urban/industrial hubs with a number of major Corporate-Houses. The presence of large deposits of minerals such as coal, iron-ore, limestone, bauxite, etc. led to the rapid industrialization and urbanisation of these areas.
One of the major factors contributing to the backwardness/ underdevelopment of the state was the growth of Left-Wing Extremism (LWE), notably the Maoists. Even before the formation of the state, large areas of the state were the citadels of Maoists under their ‘Dandakaranya Zone’. There was large scale violence and counter-extremist operations, which virtually cut off many parts of the state from mainstream and developmental activities. The successive governments adopted both ‘Carrot and Stick policy’ to contain the threat. The operations of the Special Forces, namely ‘Salwa Judum’- a state sponsored private army formed in 2005 – instead of fighting the extremists, let loose a reign of terror, which resulted in the uprooting of thousands of tribals from the villages and large-scale excesses against them. Its repercussions were far reaching as witnessed on the eve of the 2013 assembly polls, when more than two dozen senior Congress leaders, including Mahendra Karma, the founder of Salwa Judum, and Vidhya Charan Sukla, the former Union Minister and senior Congress leader of undivided Madhya Pradesh, were killed in a Maoist attack at Darbha Valley in the Bastar area. No doubt, the Maoist threat has considerably come down, but in many areas like Bastar, the tribals are reluctant to exercise their franchise, as demonstrated by the low percentage of polling in such areas during the 2013 and 2018 elections. In the wake of the recent election-boycott call by the Maoists and their stepped-up violence, more than half a dozen middle level political leaders of mainstream parties were killed by Maoists, mainly in the Bastar region.
Despite the Maoist-threat against the democratic exercise of elections, regular elections were held in the state from 2003. In the first Legislative Assembly constituted in 2000 by incorporating the sitting legislators representing the areas of the new state, the Congress had a clear majority. The senior Congress leader, Ajit Jogi, was appointed as the Chief Minister. In the first assembly elections held in 2003, the BJP captured power, and Raman Singh became the Chief Minister. In the next three elections, the BJP repeated the victory, and Raman Singh continued as the CM. But, in the 2018 Assembly elections, an entirely different picture emerged. The BJP, which won 49 seats in the 90-member Assembly with 41 percent votes in the 2013 polls, could win only 15 seats (33 percent votes). The Congress, which won 68 seats (43.9 percent votes), had returned to power. The Janata Congress of Chhattisgarh (JCC), floated by Ajit Jogi, won 5 seats (7.8 percent votes) and the BSP secured 2 seats (3.9 percent votes). The tally of Congress increased to 71 when 3 MLAs (one from the BJP and 2 from the JCC) joined the Congress. However, in the 2019 Lok Sabha Polls, riding high on the ‘Modi-wave’, the NDA/BJP recouped their position by capturing 9 out of 11 LS seats with over 51 percentage of votes and leading in 67 assembly segments. The Congress, which won 2 seats (31 percent votes) could maintain its lead only in two dozen Assembly segments.
Bhupesh Baghel, who emerged as the Congress CM, out-beating other key contenders such as TS Singh Deo, Amradhwaj Sahu, etc., could consolidate his position in the party. Singh Deo was pacified by elevating him to Deputy CM in Baghel’s cabinet. Many group/ dissident leaders were accommodated in state-owned Boards/ Corporations and statutory bodies like the State Public Service Commission. As he had total control over the state party, including the selection of candidates, two dozen sitting MLAs who were found to be unpopular in their constituencies on the basis of a pre-poll survey were dropped. Half a dozen of dropped MLAs are now contesting the polls under the banner of other parties like the BJP, Gondwana Gantantra Party (GGP), JCC, etc. The strategy of the party is to counter them by fielding popular new faces.
In the impending elections, the main contest is between the Congress and the BJP. The other parties, like JCC, now led by Ajit Jogi’s son Amit Jogi, the ‘Hamar Raj Party’ (HRP), floated by former Congress leader/ Central Minister Aravind Netam, the BSP, and the Left parties like CPM and CPI, are in the fray. Of these parties, HRP, fighting the elections highlighting the issues of tribals, Dalits and other backward sections with the popular slogan ‘Jal, Jameen, Jungle’ (Water, Land, Forest) has their major pockets in the tribal belt, especially the Bastar region. Netam, after leaving the Congress, floated’ Sarva Adivasi Samaj’ and has been working in the tribal belt since long, espousing the rights, privileges and issues of tribals. The candidates of these parties may adversely affect the electoral prospects of both the Congress and the BJP in marginal constituencies, especially in the tribal belt.
Both the Congress and the BJP have chalked out their election strategy to overcome such trends, mainly focusing on the vulnerable groups. The Congress victory in 2018 has been largely attributed to the success of the party in wooing the farmers and tribals through a number of promises, such as the procurement of paddy at the rate of Rs 2500 per quintal, incentives to farmers, educational concessions to tribals, etc. Almost on the same lines, the party has now rolled out an election manifesto promising a higher paddy procurement rate (Rs 3200 per quintal), a farm loan waiver, free electricity up to 200 units, free education from Kinder Garten (KG) to Post Graduation (PG), and a 50 percent loan subsidy for self-employment. For targeting the large number of tribals and Dalits engaged in ‘tendu-leaf collection’, the rate of leaf collection from Rs 4000 per standard sack is increased to Rs 6000 per sack, besides an annual bonus of Rs 4000 to the leaf-collectors. The implementation of many of the 2018 promises and the new set of assurances have apparently worked to the advantage of the Congress in Bastar-Sarguja areas. The BJP’s strategy is to counter the Congress with similar promises and freebies, such as higher Minimum Support Price (MSP) for paddy, one-time payment of Rs 12,000 under Krishak UnnatiYojana, Rs 12,000 annually for marriedwomen, cooking gas at the rate of Rs 500 per cylinder to poor families, etc. In order to woo the unemployed and new voters, the party has promised to create one lakh jobs.
Along with welfare measures and freebies, the Congress and the BJP focus their campaign on a number of national and state issues, such as the Caste census, ‘Hindutva’, corruption, Naxal-problem, infrastructure development, conversion/ excesses against minorities, land-rights of tribals, enhancement of minimum wages of contract workers, etc. While the Congress stands for ‘caste census’ in the state, the BJP keeps silent on this issue with the propaganda that the aim of the Modi-government is to safeguard the interests of all sections of the people. The BJP leaders, including the Prime Minister, who addressed election rallies, highlighted the various central Schemes/projects that have benefited the state and various cross sections of the people. Besides highlighting the alleged failures of the Baghel government on various fronts, the BJP has resorted to a high voltage campaign on the large scale corruption of Baghel-government and the Congress. A charge sheet containing 69 allegations and scams has been prepared by the party for public attention. The Coal-commission scam, corrupt deals/kickbacks by the State Marketing Federation, Public Service Scam, etc. are some of the major scams included in the charge sheet. The latest one is the ‘Mahadev Betting Scam’, in which allegations of large-scale corruption are levelled against the CM. The Enforcement Directorate (ED) has also stepped in with the initial probe of a few of these allegations. The BJP’s continued tirade against the state government, particularly against the CM, focusing on issues of corruption/scams, has created some negative impact among sections of urban voters. Its impact may be negligible among the large majority of tribal/ rural voters.
Both parties use the ‘Hindutva agenda’, one way or another, to woo Hindu voters in their favour. The construction of the Ram temple, in relation to the opportunistic stance of the Congress on the ‘Sanatan Dharam controversy’ and their alleged attempts to weaken the Hindu community, has been prominently featured in the BJP’s propaganda campaign. Even the ‘Mahadev Betting scam’ took on religious overtones when senior BJP leaders referenced that even ‘Lord Mahadev’ was not spared by Congress leaders in their zest for money and power. Closely on the heels of such an attack, Congress supremo Rahul Gandhi landed at Kedarnath on a pilgrimage to pay obeisance to Mahadev. Moreover, the Baghel government had undertaken a number of projects/ schemes, such as ‘Ram Van Gaman Pariyadan Parshad’ (a tourism circuit linking the various religious centres in the route supposedly taken by Lord Sreeram during his exile), ‘Godan Nya Yojana’ etc., in order to appease religious minded Hindus.
The main challenge for the BJP is the absence of a popular charismatic state leader. Thus, the party was forced to bring in Raman Singh and project him as a potential leader to challenge Baghel in the polls. On the other-hand, Baghel, despite the allegations of corruption, continued to dominate the state election scene. His main constituency continues to be the farmers/rural voters, who have decisive sway in deciding the outcome of the polls. Incidentally, during the current year, Chhattisgarh was blessed with ample rain, which to a great extent has benefited the farmers. The Congress, led by Baghel, hopes that these sections of the voters will help the party return to power.
Views expressed by the author are personal and need not reflect or represent the views of the Centre for Public Policy Research.