Chhattisgarh: Will Raman Singh score a hat-trick?

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Ever since Chhattisgarh was carved out of Madhya Pradesh on 1 November 2000, the politics of the Congress party in the state has had an unmistakable imprint of ‘divided we stand’. For want of unity, the Congress lost the state in the 2003 Assembly election, and again in 2008. Now, the party could well lose the upcoming Assembly polls in November, again because of the divisions within its ranks. As a senior Congress leader put it, “It is not the BJP that wins Chhattisgarh, it is the Congress that loses.” Even BJP leaders admit this in private.

Within undivided Madhya Pradesh, the region that became the state of Chhattisgarh had always been a Congress bastion, boasting of stalwarts like Shyama Charan Shukla, three-time chief minister of MP, and his younger brother, Vidya Charan Shukla. Though the BJP and the RSS had a presence in Madhya Pradesh, the people of Chhattisgarh had almost always backed the Congress.

When the new state was formed, it was expected that VC Shukla would become the CM. But the Congress high command preferred Ajit Jogi, then an Arjun Singh protégé. The decision to appoint Jogi as the first CM of Chhattisgarh triggered political rivalries within the party that continue to this day. “Everybody was taken aback with the decision,” remembers an old-timer. “Not even a single cracker was burst.”

The tribal-dominated Bastar region, with 12 of the 90 Assembly constituencies in the state, is said to hold the key to power in Chhattisgarh. No party has captured power in the state without winning Bastar. The Congress had won 11 of the 12 Assembly seats in 1998 (in undivided Madhya Pradesh) and formed the first state government in 2000. When the BJP rode to power in 2003, it had won nine seats in the region. And in 2008, it was only one seat short of a clean sweep in Bastar.

No wonder Congress vice-president Rahul Gandhi decided to launch his party’s election campaign in the state on 26 September not from Raipur, the capital, but a place 305 km away. Around 40,000 people attended his Adivasi Swabhiman Rally at Jagdalpur, the headquarters of Bastar district. The aim was to wrest Bastar from the BJP and present a united face before the party cadre.

In his speech, Rahul criticised the Raman Singh government for lack of development in Chhattisgarh, but not even once did he refer to the Naxalites. He did not even mention VC Shukla, who was killed along with several other state Congress leaders in the 25 May Naxal attack in Darbha valley, nor did he invite Shukla’s daughter Pratibha Pandey to the stage. But he did talk of Mahendra Karma, another Congress leader who was killed in the same attack. Karma’s family members were also present on the dais.

Though the rally was touted as reasonably successful, it didn’t help the Congress put up a united face. It was clear to the party workers that all the important state leaders were present at the rally only because of Rahul. And they had reasons to be sceptical. The problems of maintaining unity within the party had become clear just a day before the rally when Jogi’s name was found missing from the press invite. Though Jogi, just back from a trip to New Delhi, tried to downplay the omission in an interview with TEHELKA, the implication was not lost on his supporters. State Congress spokesperson Rajendra Tiwari had to resign following the fracas.

A day before Rahul’s rally, posters of Jogi were put up across Jagdalpur. Hundreds of Jogi’s supporters took out a motorcycle rally in the evening. Jogi, who had initially said that his party was hiring a chopper to fly him to Jagdalpur for Rahul’s rally, went there in a private chopper and sent the bill to the party. Even during the rally, Jogi’s supporters shouted slogans in favour of their leader until Jogi himself asked them to stop.

So, how bad is the situation for the Congress in Chhattisgarh? The party’s politics in the state revolves around Jogi, who tries to dominate it while other leaders try to outsmart him. Many party leaders say that as long as the Jogi factor persists, Raman Singh doesn’t have to worry too much about retaining power. Around eight months ago, a Congress leader had admitted to the existence of as many as nine factions within the state unit of the party.

At that time, state Congress chief Nandkumar Patel was perhaps the only ray of hope. He used to raise issues that affected the people of the state and was also able to get the warring factions on one platform. His Parivartan Yatra had even got the BJP worried. “Under Patel, the Congress seemed to have a sense of purpose,” says Giriraj Sharma, editor of Rajasthan Patrika. But Patel was killed along with Shukla and Karma in the 25 May Naxal attack that wiped out almost half the top leadership of the party. “The attack could have triggered a sympathy wave for the Congress, but that didn’t happen,” adds Sharma. Instead of uniting, the remaining party leadership got further factionalised. The mistrust was so deep-rooted that the party could not resume the hugely successful Parivartan Yatra despite announcing the dates twice.

Of course, Jogi is at the epicentre of the crisis that followed the Naxal attack. According to a Congress leader, over the years, Jogi has ensured that the party can come to power only under his leadership. After the Congress lost the 2008 Assembly polls, leaders such as Bhupesh Baghel and Dhanendra Sahu had complained to the party high command that Jogi was responsible for their defeat. Baghel had lost by more than 7,000 votes while four independent candidates got more than 5,000 votes. Sahu, the then state Congress chief, lost to his rival by less than 1,490 votes while five independent candidates got more than 5,000 votes. The defeats of Karma and Satyanarayan Sharma were also seen as the handiwork of the Jogi camp.

Again, this year, just a month after the Naxal attack, the Jogi faction backed a rebel candidate in the Bastar nagar panchayat polls, leading to the defeat of the Congress candidate. Just two months ago, the Congress veteran went around in a ‘Jogi Express’ with an open invitation to party leaders: “If you want to win elections, hop on to the Jogi Express.”

So, what is the secret of Jogi’s influence in the state? It is perhaps his sway over three crucial social groups, which together account for around 51 percent of the state’s electorate. The Satnamis (a Scheduled Caste group) comprise 16 percent, the tribals 32 percent and the Christians 3 percent. Jogi raised the hackles of his party by touring extensively in the nine Satnami-dominated Assembly constituencies during the anniversary of Mini Mata (a political icon of the Satnamis) and projecting rebel candidates. He told TEHELKA that he was merely acknowledging his supporters and the tour was completely apolitical. Yet, the tension between Jogi and his rivals escalated, with both factions meeting Rahul and others in the high command, and also submitting written complaints against each other.

With the central leadership’s intervention, the factions led by Jogi and MP Charan Das Mahant have now stopped criticising each other in public. The change of tone was evident in an interview that Jogi gave a day before Rahul’s Jagdalpur rally. Admitting that there were intra-party differences, he attributed it to the party’s democratic values. “We always fight until the tickets are distributed. I fight for my people, somebody else will fight for his people. It’s a big party, a democratic party, and everyone has a right to demand tickets,” he said. “This makes everyone think that not all is well with the Congress. But once the decision is taken and Sonia Gandhi puts her signature on it, then all the differences vanish and we get united under one umbrella: the leadership of Sonia Gandhi.”

Mahant, too, has gone on record that the Congress is extremely energised and united. But once the tape recorders are switched off, the Congress leaders sing a different tune. A senior leader says that the situation won’t change until the high command scuttles Jogi’s ambition of returning as CM and paving the way for his son to take over the reins.

The anti-Jogi camp alleges that people are ready to believe the worst about Jogi because of his past. They say that the Congress could not pin down the Raman Singh regime over the Naxal attack on its leaders because of the perception among the people that Jogi could have had a hand in the carnage. Had it been impossible to point fingers at Jogi, the Congress could have capitalised on the massacre to earn the sympathy of voters and ensure a landslide victory in the upcoming polls. “But in less than three months, people have forgotten about the worst political massacre in India,” says a Congress insider.

Jogi’s rivals also point to his involvement in an alleged attempt to bribe Baliram Kashyap, the former BJP MP from Bastar who died in 2011, and the alleged involvement of his son, Amit Jogi, in the Ram Avtar Singh Jaggi murder case. His supporters, on the other hand, talk about how Mahant had been removed as the state Congress president in 2008 because of inaction. They insist that no one can match up to Jogi’s stature in the state.

Indeed, the Jogi factor has become such an irritant that many in the party are more concerned about getting the central leadership to settle the issue once and for all, than in a victory in the Assembly polls. “For how long can they allow this kind of anarchy?” wonders a Congress functionary. The 2014 Lok Sabha election, however, is uppermost on the mind of the central leadership, and it needs to play its cards wisely. This will also influence the way it goes about tackling the Jogi factor.

On the flip side, does the infighting within the Congress mean the BJP will have a smooth ride to a third term in power? Analysts say that though the BJP has an edge, it will be more of a 55-45 kind of fight. A marginal swing of votes and 4-5 seats changing hands could turn the result on its head. “It would be foolish to write off the Congress,” says Ruchir Garg, editor of Nai Duniya. “For both parties, the real battle will begin once the candidates are announced.”

The BJP’s biggest strength is Raman Singh’s personality. The fact that there are no direct corruption charges against him stands him in good stead. Though he has faced troubles in the past, he has always been able to nip them in the bud.

In his first term as CM, several BJP MLAs went to New Delhi to complain against him. They included Home Minister Nanki Ram Kanwar, Nand Kumar Sahay, Ramesh Bains and Karuna Shukla (the niece of Atal Bihari Vajpayee). But they couldn’t forge an anti-Raman Singh front. Sahay also raised the demand that the CM should be a tribal, but that didn’t cut ice with the central leadership.

After effectively dealing with dissent in his first term, Raman Singh emerged as a frontrunner among the new crop of BJP leaders at the national level along with Shivraj Singh Chouhan, thanks to a weak central leadership, says a senior party functionary. Today, there is little chance of a revolt against him.

Even when caught on the wrong foot, Raman Singh is known to be adept at thwarting his rival’s attempts to use that against him. For instance, a CD had surfaced earlier this year in which an accused in a 2006 bank scam was heard admitting during narco-analysis that he had paid Rs 1 crore to the CM. Yet, the Opposition couldn’t convert it into an election issue.

Analysts and senior party leaders concede that the biggest challenge before Raman Singh is anti-incumbency. The party has decided to replace several sitting MLAs with new candidates as the people are dissatisfied with their work. “This could be a political gamble for Raman Singh. On being denied tickets, these MLAs might end up working against the party’s interest,” says a senior BJP leader.

Winning the battle for Bastar is another challenge. The 2011 death of Baliram Kashyap, who represented Bastar in the Lok Sabha, was a huge loss for the BJP. To boost its chances in the region, the BJP has recently inducted Kamal Chandra Bhanj Deo, the 28-year-old grandson of the legendary Prabir Chandra Bhanj Deo, the erstwhile king of Bastar, who had been killed by the police in 1966 for leading a tribal revolt. However, Deo’s induction has not been welcomed by everyone. “At his induction ceremony,” says a party insider, “no one came forward when an announcement was made to garland him.” Senior BJP leaders think there will be a tough fight this time in at least five seats in Bastar, where the BJP holds 11 of the 12 seats.

As for rivalries within the state BJP, senior political analyst Ramesh Nayyar says that the party’s organisational discipline does not allow them to come out in the open. “Everybody knows that senior minister Brijmohan Agrawal and Raman Singh don’t see eye to eye but they are often seen together at rallies,” he says.

Nayyar believes that Raman Singh’s policies on development and social welfare have benefited large sections of the people. “Around 30 lakh families are beneficiaries of the subsidised rice scheme. There’s no way Rahul Gandhi can trounce him on issues like food security,” he says.

Agrees SK Sharma, chairman of the Urla Industries Association, Raipur. “There has been all-round development under Raman Singh. The administration is sympathetic to the cause of industries, though a lot still needs to be done in the terms of infrastructure development, such as electricity and good roads in the industrial belts.”

Surprisingly, despite the 25 May massacre and the continuing Naxal violence, the issue is nowhere on the campaign agenda of either the Congress or the BJP. Both Raman Singh and Rahul Gandhi have shied away from even mentioning it in their speeches. According to the BJP, the Naxals are not a factor during election time as sympathy for them exists only outside the state. Though the Naxals usually boycott elections, one cannot rule out the possibility of local cadres being involved in campaigning for one or the other party. Podiyam Linga, a Naxal arrested recently for the murder of BJP leader Shivdayal Tomar, told the media that he had campaigned for Bheema Mandavi, the BJP MLA from Dantewada, in the 2008 Assembly election. Mandavi, however, was quick to deny any association with Linga.

Besides the Congress and the BJP, there are also some smaller parties such as the Chhattisgarh Swabhiman Manch that are desperate to make their presence felt in the Assembly polls.

Another significant player in Chhattisgarh are the OBCs, comprising the powerful Sahu community that has become more politically assertive in recent times. Though the official figure of their population in Chhattisgarh is 27 lakh, the community leaders claim they number around 55 lakh. They play a crucial role in deciding the election results in about 24 constituencies. Eleven MLAs in the current Assembly belong to this community. One of them is Nand Kumar Sahu, the BJP MLA from Raipur (Rural). “Though I am from the BJP, I also have to stand by my community,” says Sahu.

The community’s political significance can be gauged from the fact that leaders of all political parties attended the recently held Sahu Samaj Sammelan. The Sahu Samaj is demanding 27 percent reservation for OBCs instead of the current 14 percent. In a bid to woo the community’s voters, the BJP has formed a sub-committee led by Agriculture Minister Chandrashekhar Sahu to look into the matter.

No doubt Chhattisgarh will be a keenly fought contest. And if the Congress hopes to stop Raman Singh from scoring a hat-trick, it has to ensure that the ‘Jogi Express’ doesn’t derail it.

With inputs from Priyanka Kaushal

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