Welfare schemes stand the Chief Minister in good stead, but people are unhappy with corrupt BJP leaders on the ground
Contrasting the bowl of rice which ‘Dilli sarkar’ is promising with the plate-full of rice, salt, pulses, grams that Chhattisgarh ‘sarkar’ has already been delivering, Chief Minister Raman Singh held the attention of the crowds here in Mungeli district, north of Raipur, at a mass meeting.
Speaking in a mix of Chhattisgarhi and Hindi, Mr. Singh mocked the Central government for inflation, while urging the ‘janata’ to make the right political choice and support the Bharatiya Janata Party in the Assembly elections.
His pitch rested entirely on the politics of welfare — health insurance cards to all families, cycles and sewing machines and labour kits for workers, bonus for farmers, and a ‘leakage-free’ public distribution system (PDS). To drive the point home, party workers, at strategic moments, gave the cry of Chaur [rice] waale baba, as Mr. Singh is popularly called for his food security initiative.
But will it be enough for Mr. Singh and the BJP to get elected for a third term in a region which used to be a Congress bastion when Madhya Pradesh was united? In a relatively small State like Chhattisgarh, with a 90-member Assembly, every seat matters. In 2008, the BJP won in 50 seats and the Congress secured 38. A swing of six seats on either side would have changed the outright mandate into a draw. The difference in vote share was even lesser, with the BJP having an advantage of less than two percentage points.
“We all like the Chief Minister. He is gentle, sober, clean, and really feels for the poor. But his MLAs are hated,” says Moti Singh, sitting at a teashop at Kota in neighbouring Bilaspur district. “And for day-to-day work, you need the MLA, not the Chief Minister.”
Echoing the disenchantment with the local BJP representatives, Rakesh, a Raipur shopkeeper, was furious with the councillor in his area. “I want to teach the BJP a lesson because of him.” There is speculation that to counter the ‘anti-incumbency,’ a factor whose presence Mr. Singh admits, the BJP will change many of its candidates.
Rakesh was unhappy with the councillor because he was “totally corrupt,” and he “wanted money for every little small thing.” The joke in the State — recounted by many — is that one pays a bribe; yet work does not get done. However, a Raipur editor pointed out that the Congress’s less than credible record on this count left it with little political capital to raise the issue.
Welfare schemes may be Mr. Raman Singh’s USP, but not all are buying it.
Narayan, a driver, said his family did not have a health card.
Asked for the reason, he said: “Our family is dependent on daily income. Each of us works. But for the card, you require all members of the family to take a photograph together. Then, it takes one full day of queuing up and completing paperwork.” When a co-passenger suggested to Narayan that this was worth it for future returns, he said: “But who will feed the family for that day? This is all in hawa.”
The Opposition hopes to tap into this cynicism.
T.S. Singh Deo, a Congress MLA from Ambikapur in Sarguja, said there was “rampant disaffection” on the ground. “On food security, it is now known that over five to six lakh cards were fake or given to ineligible people, leading to misappropriation. In a single ward, I know of cases in which people have two to three cards.” He alleged that electricity bills were inflated, even for BPL families in rural areas. “These things may appear small, but will matter.”
Caste will continue to play a role
The traditional categories of caste and ethnicity will continue to play a role.
The BJP won 11 out of the 12 seats in the tribal-dominated Bastar belt in the last election. Congress leaders like Ajit Jogi admit that this was the primary reason for the defeat of their party. Whether the May 25 incident, in which Congress leaders were killed in south Chhattisgarh, will have an impact on voting patterns in this belt is not clear. A senior bureaucrat said: “One thing is certain. The BJP is already at Mount Everest in Bastar, it can only go downhill.” The Other Backward Classes (OBCs), particularly Sahus, in certain pockets of the State have also moved away from the BJP to join the Chhattisgarh Swabhiman Manch, which is in alliance with several other smaller parties.
It is a fluid situation for the Congress, too. Its command of the votes of tribals and Dalits has diminished considerably, and its efforts to woo the OBCs haven’t borne fruit. The party is also in the middle of a fierce in-fighting between Ajit Jogi and other leaders.
Interestingly, both the Congress and the BJP have a similar assessment of the lay of the land. A Congress leader says: “If we were united, there is enough undercurrent of resentment against the Raman Singh government to capitalise on. But in the current situation, the Chief Minister has an advantage.”
The BJP’s leaders say in private that they have an “edge,” but hesitate to declare that they are winning. “We can’t say that 100 per cent. It will be close.”