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Chhattisgarh Polls: Cong has Edge due to Paddy Purchase, Bonus, Loan Waiver

Experts believe that Congress’s farmer-tribal- centric policies and counter to BJP’s polarisation politics could help it retain power.
Chhattisgarh CM baghel

These days, the election mood is at its peak in the country, as Assembly elections are being held in five states, including Chhattisgarh, an important state of the Hindi belt. While Congress is trying hard to retain power in the state, the Bharatiya Janata party (BJP) is also leaving no stone unturned. 

Elections in Chhattisgarh will be held in two phases – the first phase of polls for 20 seats in the South Bastar division will be held on November 7 and in the second phase, 70 seats will go to polls on November 17.

Till now, all the major political parties have announced their candidates for all 90 Assembly seats.

Almost half the seats in the state are reserved -- 29 for the Scheduled Tribes (STs) and 10 for Scheduled Castes (SCs). In the last Assembly elections, Congress formed the government with absolute majority, winning 68 out of 90 seats. The BJP was limited to only 17 seats. This time, BJP has formed an alliance with the Nishad Party, which is contesting from only one seat, the Kasdol Assembly constituency. Congress is contesting on its own on all 90 seats.

Considering the Hindi belt, the 2023 Assembly elections are different in various ways. The top Congress leadership is trying to set the election agenda. The issues are paddy procurement, education and health. However, the outgoing Bhupesh Baghel government has spent a lot on the construction and promotion of the Ram Van Gaman Path, keeping Ram at the centre along with the much talked about 'Godhan Nyay Yojana.'

Apart from the two national parties, the Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP), Chhattisgarh Janata Congress, Gondwana Gantantra Party, Communist Party of India (CPI), Hamar Raj Party, Nirbal Indian Shoshit Hamara Aam Dal (Nishad) and Aam Aadmi Party are also in the poll fray. It remains to be seen whether these parties make a dent in the vote bank of Congress and BJP. 

Social activist Alok Shukla believes that the 'Hamar Raj Party', formed by Sarva Adivasi Samaj, could cause some damage to Congress.

"The 2018 election was very important. There was widespread loot of resources during the 15 years of Raman Singh's (BJP) government. The repression inside Bastar, arrests of tribals, and fake encounters were at their peak, and the constitutional rights of the tribals were being disregarded. Bonuses were promised to farmers, but were not given, due to which there was widespread anger against the government. There were democratic organisations, especially the farmers' movement in the entire state, due to which the farmers united. In the same way, democratic organisations gathered on the issues of tribals. In this, the most important role was played by the entire tribal society."

However, in a note of criticism of the Baghel government, Shukla said, "After coming to power, the Congress government did not maintain communication with the democratic organisations. This is the reason why the entire tribal society is in play with the issues of tribals by forming the Hamar Raj Party (HRP). Only time will tell how many votes this party can garner, but the HRP is contesting from all ST seats. Congress will have to bear the loss somewhere”.

He added that BJP would also suffer loss, but Congress would suffer more. “Last time, the margin of victory on tribal reserved seats was 20,000 to 25,000. This time, the margin of victory will be lower," he said.

Is Corruption an Issue?

It is noteworthy that ever since the formation of the Congress government, the Baghel government has been facing allegations of liquor scam, coal scam, cow dung scam and PSC scam (the latest is Mahadev App). The news of ED (Enforcement Directorate) raids on many ministers, business people and top officials involved in the Chhattisgarh government made headlines. Many times, the Central agencies and the State government were seen face to face.

Baghel's personal secretary, Soumya Chaurasia, and two IAS officers, Sameer Bishnoi and Ranu Sahu, are in jail in the alleged levy scam case. The ED team raided over 20 business people, MLAs, and officials close to the government under the Prevention of Money Laundering Act.

But the question is, with all this, has BJP been successful in making corruption an election issue?

Senior Raipur journalist Ravi Bhoi believes the BJP has failed to make corruption an election issue. 

"BJP tried to make corruption an issue, but it could not become an issue because the effect of corruption is more visible in cities, not in villages. Congress's purchase of paddy at higher rates in villages, bonuses and loan waivers did not allow corruption to become an issue. In the past five years, the villagers have seen the money received from the Nyay Yojana, rather than corruption."

Geographically, Chhattisgarh can be divided into North, South and Central. Politically, Central Chhattisgarh is important, as it has the maximum number of 64 Assembly seats. The South has 12 seats (Bastar division), and North has 14 (Surguja division).

Central Chhattisgarh developed during the British era. The railway line to Mumbai, Odisha and West Bengal also passes through the region. Administrative institutions, power plants and mining, too, developed in the central region. The most important river of the state, Mahanadi, passes through the middle.

Also, the central region has the highest number of paddy farmers. Paddy crop is harvested twice in a year. Political observers believe that the loan waiver of farmers and the promise of purchasing paddy at a rate higher than the MSP (minimum support price) gave Congress an absolute majority. Farmers have been at the centre of the policies and schemes of the Bhupesh Baghel-led government in the past five years. 

Posan Mahant, who works as a guard in Raigarh, says, "This government has done a lot of good work. We are landless. We got Rs 7,000 in three instalments in a year under the Grameen Bhoomiheen Nyay scheme. We read in the newspapers that if Congress government is formed again, the landless will also get a lease. We hope the government will give the lease."

Addressing a farmers' conference before the elections, state Agriculture, Animal Husbandry and Fisheries Minister Ravindra Choubey said, "This year, too, the farmers of Chhattisgarh got the highest price of paddy in the entire country. In the coming year, the price of paddy for the farmers will be Rs 2,800/quintal."

"Due to the increased MSP and input subsidy under Rajiv Gandhi Kisan Nyay Yojana, farmers will start getting paddy prices up to Rs 3,600/quintal by the next term," he added.

However, the position of Congress appears weak in areas where farmers do not cultivate paddy. The party had made a clean sweep in the last elections in South and North, but this time, BJP seems to be working hard in both regions. However, both regions have fewer seats.

Nande Kumar Yadav, a paddy farmer from Jaspur district, cultivates paddy in 10 acres.

"We are happy with Congress's paddy procurement. Paddy was procured at a fixed rate on time, and bonuses also came from time to time. But the compost the government is giving for Godhan is a mess, because they are forcibly giving cow dung fertiliser. There is dust and soil adulteration in it. The fertiliser is not good. The Baghel government is better for the farmers than the Raman Singh government." 

At the same time, many government schemes did not work, for instance, the Godhan Nyay Yojana. 

The government claims that till July 2023, Rs 526 crore was transferred to the accounts of the beneficiaries under the Godhan Nyay Yojana, but most cowsheds have only two to four cows. According to government data, 2 lakh 80 thousand quintals of cow dung was purchased in Godhans in the second fortnight of July.

Manish Gupta, a senior journalist of Patrika newspaper from Jagdalpur, believes that the Godhan scheme is failing. 

"On paper, it is a good plan. However, it has not been implemented well. The land required for Godhan is not available in villages. In many villages, animals are not able to reach Godhan. Later, the government linked the scheme with self-help groups and livelihood earnings under multi-planning, but that too could not materialise."

He said, "BJP has been continuously making an issue regarding this scheme. The way BJP has made an issue of corruption, it has become a political issue. It may also capitalise on this in the times to come."

Who is Handling Caste Equations Better?

The caste census is a hotly debated issue in the country. BJP has captured power at the Centre twice through its Hindutva politics and caste arithmetic. Congress has also started trying to change the political stance of the country in its favour with the help of caste-based calculation. Now, the party has promised to conduct a caste census in Congress-ruled states.

Congress National General Secretary Priyanka Gandhi, addressing a rally in Chhattisgarh, said if Congress comes to power again, the caste census would be conducted in the state. Earlier, Rajasthan Chief Minister Ashok Gehlot had also talked about conducting a caste census in the state on the lines of Bihar.

Both BJP and Congress are making every effort to woo OBCs (Other Backward Classes). Just a few days before the elections, the Chhattisgarh government had started the exercise to increase OBC reservation in government jobs. However, the Bilaspur High Court, while hearing the petition, cancelled the reservation.

Chief Minister Baghel hails from the Kurmi caste, considered among the backward castes. Congress has also fielded OBC candidates for 30 seats, including nine Kurmi and nine Sahu candidates. BJP has fielded OBC candidates on 31 seats, including 11 Sahu and eight Kurmi candidates. 

It is said that the Sahu community has been a traditional voter of BJP, but this equation changed in the last elections. There was a discussion among the Sahu community that Tamradhwaj Sahu from Congress could be made Chief Minister. After the elections, the Congress central leadership decided to make Baghel from the Kurmi community the CM. In such a situation, the question is that this time round, when Congress is contesting the elections with Baghel's face, who will the Sahus back?

Harsh Dubey, who keeps a keen eye on the state’s politics, believes that after Baghel became Chief Minister, backward class politics heated up in the state.

"Based on numbers, the two main castes in the plains are Sahu and Kurmi. Since Baghel is a Kurmi, the BJP has tried to woo back Sahus, who have traditionally been inclined towards it and shifted to Congress in 2018. BJP made Bilaspur MP Arun Sahu its state president in place of tribal Vikram Usendi," he pointed out.

He added that "It has become clear from the decisions of the Baghel government regarding reservation and the youth movement that the state's politics is now becoming backward class-centric. One of the important promises that Congress is making regarding the upcoming elections is to conduct a caste census after forming the government. This step is a direct step to woo OBC voters. Due to issues like not making Tamradhwaj Sahu the Chief Minister or Deputy Chief Minister and the incident in Biranpur in which a Sahu youth was murdered, there is little possibility that the Sahu community will once again repose faith in Congress as it did in 2018." 

Who Suffered Due to Factionalism?

The effect of factionalism is visible in ticket distribution of both the national parties. Due to fear of factionalism, BJP has not been able to declare the Chief Minister's face even till the end of the elections. Raman Singh was CM for 15 years, but this is the first time after the formation of Chhattisgarh, that he is not the CM face. On the lines of Himachal and Karnataka, BJP is contesting the elections on the face of Prime Minister Narendra Modi.

On the other side, within a few days of the formation of the Congress government in the state, a tussle started between ministers TS Singh Deo and Baghel over the CM’s post. Both the leaders had reached Delhi with their supporting MLAs. However, after persuasion by the central leadership, both leaders were seen working together in Chhattisgarh. But, that changed when Deo resigned from the post of the Minister for the Panchayat and Rural Development. 

Due to the ongoing rift between Baghel and Deo, the party is divided into two groups. In such a situation, the entire focus of Congress was to end this factionalism before the elections. Six months before the elections, the Congress high command tried to calm down the internal strife by making Deo the Deputy CM.

The Congress high command may have calmed the discord by making Deo the Deputy Chief Minister, but in North Chhattisgarh, the party has failed to convey the message that it has returned the lost dignity of Deo.

Political pundits believe that Deo plays a decisive role on 14 seats of the Surguja division. In the last Assembly elections, Congress made a clean sweep in that area because there was a rumour that he would become the Chief Minister, but something else happened.

If there is any change in these 14 seats of the Surguja division, will Deo have to bear the brunt of it?

Chhattisgarh Assembly elections are an election for Congress to save its existence in the Hindi heartland. Chhattisgarh is the only state where Congress is in government with an absolute majority. The Congress party is loudly talking about implementing the 'Chhattisgarh Model' in other states also. Recently, in Rajasthan, Ashok Gehlot has said on the lines of the Chhattisgarh government's Godhan Nyay Yojana that the Congress government would buy animal dung at Rs 2 per kg to produce biogas.

Congress MP Rahul Gandhi, while addressing his first election rally in Chhattisgarh, made it clear that issues like education and health would be top on his agenda.

Political analyst Rajan Pandey believes that not only has Congress benefited from its farmer-tribal centric policies, but Congress has also countered BJP's polarisation politics through Rampath Gaman Marg, Chhattisgarhism and Godhan.

"Chhattisgarhianism of Baghel has worked to puncture the politics of BJP in Chhattisgarh because the top leadership in BJP, Raman Singh, Brajmohan Aggarwal and Saroj Pandey, are all from upper caste. The number of upper castes in Chhattisgarh is very low. That is why, this time in the elections, the BJP experimented and cancelled the tickets of many big leaders and gave them to new people. BJP may not get the benefit of this experiment in this election, but it may get benefit in the coming elections."

The writer is an independent journalist. Translated from Hindi.

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