It is not often that the main opposition party is forced on the defensive in an election. In Chhattisgarh, voter fatigue and the anti-incumbency sentiment seem to be a bigger drag on the Congress, which heads the United Progressive Alliance government at the Centre, than on the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party. With the Lok Sabha election only a few months away, the Congress is finding it difficult to keep the focus on issues relevant to the State Assembly election during the campaign. The BJP is seeking a third term in Chhattisgarh, but it is the Congress that is on the back foot fending off attacks on the Manmohan Singh government’s governance record at the Centre. Narendra Modi, the prime ministerial candidate of the BJP, divides his campaign time between attacking the failures of the Congress at the Centre and praising the achievements of the Raman Singh government in the last ten years. As the campaign hots up in Chhattisgarh, Mr. Modi, who sees Congress vice president Rahul Gandhi as his principal rival, is setting the campaign agenda in the tribal-dominated State. Issues relating to land acquisition, jobs and development remain central to Chhattisgarh, but these seem to have been crowded out by the bigger picture of the Lok Sabha election.
Chhattisgarh is one of the States most affected by Maoist violence, but Mr. Modi would rather harp on the bomb blasts at the venue of his rally in Patna than on the failure of Chief Minister Raman Singh to contain the threat from Naxalites. Although leaders of the Congress were the victims of a brutal attack by Maoist elements in Darbha, the party seems unable to politically capitalise on the failures of the BJP government on the law and order front. If the Congress is to recover lost ground in the battle for Chhattisgarh, the party’s leaders need to re-focus on the development agenda, addressing the livelihood concerns of the people. Although Raman Singh initiated a hugely successful food security programme involving distribution of heavily subsidised rice to poor households, under his chief ministership employment opportunities have been lacking for the State’s youth. Government jobs, especially in schools, remain the only escape route for the people in the tribal areas, but recruitment in these areas does not match the available unemployed and underemployed workforce. The Congress needs to tap into this underlying resentment if it is to unseat the BJP in Chhattisgarh. Opinion polls show the BJP ahead, but this is a close fight, and the Congress might still be able to turn things around with a more aggressive campaign studded with promises of jobs and development.