Communal cut and thrust roils Chhattisgarh poll blitz

Chhattisgarh has never seen such divisive rhetoric so far in its electoral history; as Amit Shah and Himanta raised the temperatures by resorting to such language, especially in the Durg and Rajnandgaon belt, the ruling party has been seeking to defend its turf through welfare promises

October 26, 2023 08:20 pm | Updated October 27, 2023 12:55 am IST - RAIPUR

Union Home Minister Amit Shah addresses the BJP’s ‘Parivartan Sankalp Mahasabha in Rajnandgaon on October 16, 2023.

Union Home Minister Amit Shah addresses the BJP’s ‘Parivartan Sankalp Mahasabha in Rajnandgaon on October 16, 2023. | Photo Credit: ANI

The term “lynching”, the Hamas-Israel war, and a Mughal emperor have all become part of the political lexicon of election-bound Chhattisgarh. With past communal incidents influencing not just the tone and tenor of the BJP’s campaign but its selection of candidates as well, observers say that the State is witnessing the emergence of a Hindu-Muslim divide as a poll issue for the first time in its electoral history.

As the BJP looks to build a narrative against the Bhupesh Baghel-led Congress government through allegations of polarisation and corruption, the ruling party seeks to defend its turf — and its catchphrase of Bharosa or trust — through new welfare promises.

Campaigning for candidates in the Durg and Rajnandgaon belt, both Union Home Minister Amit Shah and Assam Chief Minister Himanta Biswa Sarma have delivered speeches with communal overtones.

Communal themes

On October 16 in Rajnandgaon, Mr. Shah accused the Congress government of lynching a youth – who was killed in a Hindu-Muslim clash in April and whose father the BJP has fielded as a candidate from the Saja seat in Bemetara district – for the sake of appeasement.

Two days later in Kawardha, Mr. Sarma – campaigning for Vijay Sharma, another BJP candidate who is an accused in the 2021 communal clashes over religious flag hoisting – targeted the State’s only Muslim Minister, Mohammad Akbar, with a controversial comment, saying, “One Akbar brings a hundred Akbars.” He added that it was an ‘Akbar’ fighting in the Gaza Strip, noting that Hamas had shot at children and the elderly in Israel.

The Congress has filed complaints with the Election Commission of India against the two leaders, and Chief Minister Bhupesh Baghel has accused the BJP of politicising the communal clashes.  

Editorial | Forest pitch: On the Chhattisgarh Assembly elections

‘Politicising riots’

“In the Biranpur [Bemetara] incident, action was taken against all the accused. After that we also announced compensation and passed it in the cabinet. The manner in which the Bharatiya Janata Party has fielded [the victim’s father Ishwar Sahu] as a candidate, it means they want to politicise. There is rule of law in the State but the Bharatiya Janata Party is looking at it from a political lens. I feel the people won’t like it,” Mr. Baghel told a TV channel on Wednesday. 

Raipur-based political commentator Ashok Tomar says that this is a desperate move by the BJP, as its campaign has lacked teeth so far and proposals for a caste survey have further wrong-footed the party. 

“Even though Muslims form a miniscule part of the State’s population, polarisation on religious lines, and also pitting Sahus — a community that Ishwar hails from — against the Congress may cause some damage to the Congress in 18 seats where the community is dominant. This includes areas from the Durg-Rajnandgaon belt that sends key political figures such as Raman Singh and Mr. Baghel to the Assembly, to the Bilaspur region,” he says. 

Caste calculus

Mr. Tomar adds that the Sahu-versus-Congress/Muslims calculus has to be viewed in the light of the BJP’s own efforts to woo the Sahus, a key other backward class (OBC) community, by appointing Arun Sao as its State president last year. The BJP has fielded nine candidates from the Sahu community while the Congress has fielded seven. “And then factor in the Congress alienating some of the Sahu voters by not making [Cabinet Minister] Tamradhwaj Sahu as the Chief Minister. The BJP is attempting a counter to the Congress’ OBC push, as the upper caste voters are barely 7% to 8% in Chhattisgarh,” says Mr. Tomar.  

Narayan Chandel, a senior BJP leader and the Leader of Opposition in the outgoing Assembly, plays down the importance of these controversial speeches. On the candidature of Mr. Sahu and Mr. Sharma, however, he says that there are many factors behind the selections, including caste. “The party must have thought it through before fielding them. There are many factors involved, regional equations, caste equations and feedback from ground surveys,” he says. 

Farm welfare schemes

On October 23, Mr. Baghel rolled the dice again when he announced a farm loan waiver for the farmers of the State and reiterated his earlier promises to conduct a State-level caste survey, buy 20 quintals per acre of rice from farmers, and provide 17.5 lakh houses for the homeless. One prevailing view within the Congress is that the bonus it gives to paddy cultivators is now being “taken as granted”, and the party needed to do something extra to keep farmers impressed. 

Observers draw parallels with the BJP’s Raman Singh government that had once consolidated support in the State by free distribution of rice, which later faded away. The loan waiver proposal, that had helped it win power in 2018, seemed an obvious solution, add Congress insiders. 

Mr. Chandel from the BJP, however, says that waiving loans will not be possible this time around. “The State is under a lot of debt and the treasury does not have enough funds for even patchwork of roads. Where will they get the funds from? They are deceiving the farmers,” says Mr. Chandel.

Corruption allegations

Meanwhile, the ruling party continues to battle allegations of corruption. This week, the Enforcement Directorate claimed that a custom milling special incentive scam had taken place in the State, allegedly generating kickbacks to the tune of ₹175 crore. This is in addition to the alleged coal levy scam, liquor scam, and Mahadev betting app scam which have hogged the limelight over the past year and a half. In his campaign speech, Mr. Shah had said that the corrupt would be “hung upside down” if the BJP was voted to power. 

Mr. Baghel counters these allegations and objects to the language used by the BJP. “Till now, other than using [words like] hanging upside down and abusing and provoking people, [the BJP] have said nothing...” Mr. Baghel told reporters on October 19. 

New faces

Both parties have now announced their candidates for all the 90 seats in the State, with nearly a third from OBC communities. Caste survey has been another key electoral promise made by the Congress in these elections, but apart from its resonance in the candidature, it has not been prominently visible in the campaign thus far.  

The Congress has dropped 22 of its 71 sitting MLAs, although two of these have sons who will contest from their fathers’ current seats. The BJP has also dropped two sitting MLAs, from a relatively low base of just 13 MLAs and despite internal criticism about too many old faces in their list.

There have been few instances of rebellion in either party till now. The restraint shown by some of the dropped incumbents from the Congress so far is because many of them feel that a return to power may still leave room for them to be “adjusted in various boards at the district or the State level”, say party sources.

Aspiring party spoilers

The main actors in this electoral theatre are the BJP and the Congress, but the State does have a smattering of other players looking to spoil the party for the leads. This includes an alliance between the Bahujan Samaj Party and the Gondwana Gantantra Party, the Janta Congress Chhattisgarh(J) or JCCJ, the Hamar Raj Party (HRP) founded by former Union Minister Arvind Netam, and a rejuvenated Aam Aadmi Party. In the 2018 polls, despite an impressive show by the Congress, over 20% of the votes went to “others” such as these.

Asked whether too many players will mean a division of the non-BJP, non-Congress votes, JCCJ chief Amit Jogi says his party has fielded grassroots level workers and picked those who have won elections at the local level as BJP and Congress candidates in order to consolidate the votes that do not go to either of the two national parties. Such claims notwithstanding, analysts say that the outfit’s prospects are dim after the demise of its founder Ajit Jogi.

The HRP, which has announced 16 candidates, has fielded its State president B.S. Rawte against the Chief Minister from Patan. This unusual move — of a tribal candidate contesting from a general, OBC-dominated seat — sits well, at least symbolically, with the party’s narrative of tribal leadership and a “tribal versus OBC” binary that have gained currency over the past year. 

Quotas and conversions

With allegations that OBC upliftment often comes at the cost of marginalised tribals, the HRP has focussed on caste-based reservation as a key issue. The subject of reservation in Chhattisgarh is entangled in a complex politico-legal battle over the quantum of quotas and is likely to create an impact in the tribal belt of Bastar which goes to polls in the first phase of voting on November 7. 

Apart from the issue of reservation that has sway in certain pockets of Bastar, religious conversions have also been a bone of contention in the region that witnessed clashes over the issue in the beginning of the year, with frequent resurfacing in the villages. Occasional reports of social boycotts have also been heard.

In some pockets, sources on the ground say, there is a clear three-way division among the tribals: tribals, Hindu or Sanatani tribals, and Christian tribals. The challenge for the Congress — that won all the 12 seats in Bastar in 2018, (including one in a later byelection), and has replaced four of its candidates there in 2023 — will be to prevent further polarisation.   

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