Chhattisgarh has three distinct vote blocks. The northern districts of Koria, Surguja, Jashpur, Raigarh and Korba, which have 23 seats (including new districts), are dominated by various tribal communities and voters from Scheduled Castes (SC). Some 55 seats are in central areas – largely controlled by the SCs and Other Backward Classes (OBC). The southern part of the state has 12 seats dominated by Gond tribals and performance here can be a decider.
A critical issue is the relationship between the Congress and its leader Ajit Jogi. Mr. Jogi has been camping in Delhi to get a few more seats for his loyalists, but the State Congress is reluctant to accede to his demands. However, from Monday night, Mr. Jogi and the Congress have been trying to figure out if they can work out a deal as the former Chief Minister decided to leave his favourite Marwahi seat to his son, Amit Jogi. The move, Congress observers say, is part of a ‘ceasefire.’ It is believed that Mr. Jogi has been offered the seat of his choice in next year’s Lok Sabha election if he refrains from pitching himself as the Chief Ministerial candidate in the State.
However, many observers say that the Congress has not been effective in taking the ruling party to task for gaps in health infrastructure, a failing school system especially in tribal areas, loot of farm land, routine torture of girls and the plight of tribal under-trials in Bastar’s jails. “I wish we could convert people’s sufferings to political issues,” said the octogenarian former Congress minister, Ramchandra Singh Deo.
In central Chhattisgarh, the BJP acquired 28 and the Congress 25 seats in the 2008 election, and two seats went to the BSP. The districts are controlled by the OBCs – including the powerful Sahus (oil traders) and Kurmis (farming community) – with about 40 per cent votes. The equation could change with the entry of Chhattisgarh Swabhiman Manch (CSM), a party espousing the cause of locals.
“CSM will get some votes, but whose vote — the Congress’s or BJP’s — is the question,” said political analyst Ramesh Naiyar, adding that the BJP is already under pressure because of the CSM. “The party has not changed its old candidates in CSM’s area,” he said.
While the Congress seats are reducing in tribal belts, the north – another predominantly tribal area, returned more seats to the party compared to the BJP in 2008. Out of 23 seats in the old alignment of districts in the north, Congress got 12. The area has witnessed massive coal mining over the years and now it is unclear if loss of land and excessive pollution will turn voters against the ruling party. The BJP is aware of the negatives but has kicked off a well-funded campaign. Defeating the Congress here though, could be a challenge.
Distribution of subsidized food has earned several laurels and a victory for the BJP in 2008. By the time the Assembly election arrived in the autumn of 2008, 65 per cent (36 lakh) families accessed food through a renovated PDS. While only rice, wheat and salt were provided in 2007, two kgs of pulses were added in tribal and non-tribal areas in 2011.
“The PDS already existed for several decades. We streamlined the existing network and almost doubled the number of households by the end of 2008,” an official said. Officials say that in 2013, five years after the last election, nearly 50 lakh families (90 per cent) are covered under PDS, an increase of 14 lakh families.
In Chhattisgarh, on an average, a household has 2.5 votes. So, if 50 lakh families are accessing PDS, then the programme is reaching 1.25 crore voters out of a total of 1.68 crore – potentially a winning votebank.
The primary problem with PDS is, it peaked before the 2008 Assembly election. “In the last five years, subsidised food reached another 20-25 per cent families. We do not know if that is good enough,” said the bureaucrat.
As if to offset the PDS, acquisition of land from farmers has become an election issue.
“We migrated to Chhattisgarh from Bangladesh in 1947 and fought many battles with animals, nature and diseases to make the place habitable. Now just as we settled in, everything is going away again in exchange for a few sacks of rice,” said Atul Chandra Madhu, a 74-year-old farmer of Baysi Colony in Raigarh. Mr. Madhu along with thousands of farmers may lose nearly 3,500 hectares of land to three power companies, like many others in north Chhattisgarh.
While Mr. Madhu did not clarify if he would vote against the BJP, Gagan Mandal, another farmer, said that the villagers are discussing their “future every night.”
BJP poll managers say they have another welfare scheme for the farmer vote – an increase in the minimum support price. In addition to the MSP of Rs. 1,270 for each quintal of paddy, another Rs. 270 has been budgeted as a bonus for 10 lakh farming families.
“It will reach 25 lakh voters and may well be the trump card,” said a senior bureaucrat.