Betting on the wrong horse cost the Congress dear

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Told you so! Raman Singh has successfully shepherded the BJP to another close win
Told you so! Raman Singh has successfully shepherded the BJP to another close win. Photo: Vinay Sharma

If Rahul Gandhi can be deluded so easily and twice within a space of few days, then Narendra Modi is on a good wicket. First, Rahul put his trust in a man who made his government believe that there was gold — 1,000 tons of it — underneath an old fortress in Uttar Pradesh so the hopeful went digging and found rusted nails. Then the same man came up with the theory that he could form a government in Chhattisgarh. Both times his guru had had a dream and Rahul believed him. The result? The Congress again found rust in the form of 27 of its 38 sitting MLAs, who lost. Rejected by an electorate fast tiring of Rahul, who repeatedly comes up short on strategy and political acumen.

That man, Charan Das Mahant, is still smiling though. He grandiosely announced at a press conference that he takes “full responsibility” for the loss in Chhattisgarh as if it were a cup of tea offered by a gracious host. He went on to state that the loss of 27 MLAs was a matter of research, hinting that former chief minister Ajit Jogi could be behind a sabotage conspiracy, which denied him the pleasure of chief ministerial responsibility. State party insiders are so riled by this attitude that they feel the least Rahul should do now is sack Mahant from the UPA Cabinet and divest him of his PCC presidency to restore a semblance of sanity.

The electorate in Chhattisgarh is already well aware of the wayward ways of Mahant and his image may have been a major stumbling block. How and why Rahul missed this is a mystery that eventually cost Congress the state.

In the end, the better prepared party won. The BJP had been meticulous in its preparations as TEHELKA had pointed out in all its despatches leading up to the election. Every minute detail had been looked into from issuing of ration cards in the name of women to collecting and using digital data originally meant for PDS. This included contacting every cellphone user in the state. It was always going to be a close race and everyone except Rahul and Mahant knew it. The difference of 10 seats doesn’t relay the true picture that it was easily Independent India’s closest tie with only 0.75 percent separating the two parties. The BJP’s share of 41.04 percent is only a fig leaf ahead of the Congress’ 40.29. And if the two need proof, then it’s easily available in the NOTA button, which was used by 3.7 percent of the electorate. A formidable 7,115 people used it in Marwahi, from where Ajit Jogi’s son contested.

Congressmen did what they are prone to do in situations where they expect a sympathy windfall. They sat and dreamt of pots of gold at the end of the rainbow. The wise men had estimated that the mass killing of senior Congress leaders in the Jeeram Valley in Dantewada in May 2013 would be enough to see them through. So even as the elections raged outside, the camp fights raged within. Jogi was doing his Satnami rallies, the Mahant camp was up to no good as usual and sitting MLAs were busy dreaming portfolios they might wangle after victory. They might have calculated correctly if they had worked alongside, instead of throwing their weight around as ministers-in-waiting.

With each passing day, Mahant had started behaving like the chief minister designate and had even got himself a spanking new portfolio of photographs to be released on the day of his swearing-in.

The BJP machinery, on the other hand, sensed that the first round of voting for 18 seats, including 12 in Bastar, may have gone against it. They changed tack instantly in the week between the two phases. Narendra Modi was pressed into service. He had held only four meetings in the first phase as CM Raman Singh remained the focus of BJP campaigns. In the week in between, he held a whirlwind 10 more, visiting even small places like Bemetara and Kawardha. Suddenly, new hoardings went up putting Modi alongside Raman pitching for the youth vote. Modi regaled crowds with his anecdotal Gandhi parivar bashing.

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Instead of perceiving the change as unusual, Congressmen went into a self-congratulatory mode. They thought they had finally scared Chaur Baba who was now being referred to as Daru Baba (liquor baba). The rivalry between Charan and Jogi camps became sharper as reports suggested that the Congress would sweep Bastar. Rahul was invited by the state PCC to address only four meetings even though he drew bigger crowds than Modi, unlike in Delhi. But Saudan Singh, who was behind the BJP’s changed tactics, understood its import. Modi may not draw crowds but he definitely enthused the party worker to work as hard as him. That’s all Saudan wanted. The last mile is usually covered by people who make that extra effort.

The extra effort is also visible in the BJP’s smart reverse social engineering plan. Raman Singh had in an unusual move reduced the quota of scheduled caste from 22.5 to 12 percent and increased the scheduled tribe quota to 32 percent. This was based on a logic of population share and total reservation not going beyond the 50 percent limit.

The SC community, led mostly by Satnamis, went up in arms and it was generally assumed that they would vote against the government. Jogi’s Satnami meetings a month prior to the elections may have scared Rahul into listening to him and literally hand over the reins to him midway, but it certainly did not bother the BJP. They worked on the logic that once the Satnamis unite the other castes will support the BJP. In an unprecedented proof of the pudding, the BJP has won nine of the 10 SC seats, even snatching one from the BSP.

This is also the first time in nearly 70 years that the party, which has won Bastar, has not won Chhattisgarh. The Congress has won eight out of 12 seats in Bastar and 19 out of 29 tribal seats in the state. It marks the return of the tribal vote to its fold for the first time in 15 years. That may be the way forward if Rahul does see light at the end of the tunnel. The Congress will have to target the four tribal seats in the state if it wants to do well in 2014. It has managed only one seat out of 11 in past two general elections because the tribal vote had gone to the BJP. This positive turn of events will have to be encashed further.

Veteran Khelsai Singh, who has won from Premnagar, should now be nominated Leader of Opposition and Jogi should be asked to concentrate on winning the Raigarh reserved seat. As for Mahant, Rahul should seriously think about what to do with him. There are enough OBC leaders in the state who can do better. As it is, Ranvijay Singh Judeo, nephew of the late Dilip Singh Judeo, has announced his intention to contest against him from Janjgir and that should put the lid on his career.

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