New Delhi: Among all the three states where the Congress party is poised to form governments, it performed the best in Chhattisgarh, winning more than three-fourth of the seats. On Sunday, it named the party’s state unit head, Bhupesh Baghel, as the next CM of Chhatisgarh.

P.L. Punia, a veteran party leader and a Rajya Sabha member, was given charge of the state by the party leadership in July last year. Punia has been credited with improving the party’s performance in the state and keeping all senior leaders together.

In an interview with Mint, Punia spoke about whether the party expected such a mandate, gave a peek into its approach to the elections, particularly in tribal seats, and explained how farmers’ issue is likely to gain centre stage ahead of the crucial 2019 general elections. Edited excerpts:

The Congress was expecting to perform well, but did you foresee the kind of mandate which the party received in Chhattisgarh?

We had expected a majority because of the support from farmers and youth, and the kind of response our public meetings were getting in tribal areas was also an indicator. Paddy cutting had happened prior to elections, but farmers did not deliver it because they were waiting for the Congress to form government. Farmers support, they belong to all classes, all castes and tribes and all of them were supporting us. There was no doubt that we will get majority.

So far as this mandate was concerned, we did not have such an early estimate because this was an incumbent government...however, our actual estimate after voting when we gathered constituency-wise data, we found out that we could win up to 72 seats. We thought if we tell anyone that we may win 70+ seats, they will laugh at us because it seemed unreal. So, we had officially said post poll that we will keep a conservative figure of 50+. The day the results came out, we were delighted with our estimated tally matching.

The tribal reserved seats seemed to have played a key role. What was the party’s approach on tribal seats?

This is true because we won all seats in Sarguja district and all but one seat in Bastar district. Tribal voters were very angry with the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) for no development in their areas and the tribal voters were with us for steps like the Forest Rights Act (FRA). So, we were expecting this kind of response.

While naturally our focus was on issues concerning the tribal voters, however, we put a lot of our focus on Other Backward Castes and Scheduled Caste (SC) voters in such tribal reserved seats. The idea was that tribal votes will naturally get distributed among tribal candidates. So we knew that deciding factor in such seats are not tribal votes but other communities and we worked on it.

In a first, Congress has managed to significantly increase its vote share. How did the party achieve it and what kind of long-term impact will it have in the state?

Overall, people in Chhattisgarh support Congress party and, in that, a key role has been played by farmers and the tribal population. The vote share itself has increased compared to 2013. Especially in Naxal areas, voters came out on polling day in full strength and did not care despite a call of boycott. Farmers supported us and came out en masse to vote. If we note, one of the key reasons for this is also that urban population supported us.

A lot of ministers from former chief minister Raman Singh’s cabinet also lost polls in Chhattisgarh. How do you see that?

A number of their ministers lost, including their speaker. Ministers in the state were representative of the government’s image of being corrupt and arrogant. They did not care for the people in 15 years and they kept saying they will form government for a fourth time. People did not like the arrogance of BJP government.

BJP took people for granted and they behaved like they were obviously going to win, so it made no difference. Governments have to go to people, meet them, hear them out and seek their response. People answered their arrogance by showing that they are angry with BJP and they liked the Congress. And, the way in which Congress president Rahul Gandhi raised the issue of farmers, youths, poor and disadvantaged sections in his campaign was also a key factor.

We have an election manifesto. Almost everyone releases their manifesto but no one even talks about the BJP’s manifesto. They did not speak anything about farmers, they did not speak about loan waiver, they did not even speak about MSP (minimum support price) which they had done last time.

You had said earlier that Congress won these elections because it kept farmers centre stage. Do you think that farmers have become a key electorate, especially ahead of the 2019 general elections?

The situation is such that no political party can ignore genuine demands of the farmers. People used to consider farmers part of the unorganized sector and ignore them. A farmer is a producer of food grains but the cost of their produce gets decided by someone else which is the government. Even if someone makes a needle, they decide its cost but a farmer cannot.

This (union) government is not willing to listen to their genuine concerns and so, uneconomical farming is happening which is leading to loans spiralling and they are not able to pay it. This, too, is the responsibility of the government because they have failed to give them a fair MSP which can support and meet their expenditure. If farmers are not able to pay their loans because of government’s policies, then it is our responsibility to waive off their loans and so we took that decision.

How soon does the Congress party plan to roll out the loan waiver scheme in Chhattisgarh?

We will announce loan waiver within 10 days of government formation. Rahul Gandhi has made it very clear that even if the skies fall, the loans of the farmers will be waived off.

How do you respond to the criticism that despite getting a sweeping mandate, Congress had delayed the announcement of its chief ministerial candidate because of factionalism?

We were called by Rahul Gandhiji for the first time on Friday and there was no meeting with him before that. The MLAs (members of legislative assembly) had met in Raipur and they had authorized Rahul Gandhi for choosing the next chief minister. If he wanted he could have directly taken a decision, but he wanted to discuss it with all of us. There is no factionalism and everyone is accepting Rahulji’s decision.

What kind of an impact do you see of these three state elections for Congress party ahead of the 2019 general elections?

For Congress party, the vote share in a state like Chhattisgarh, has tremendously increased. In electoral politics, voter base is most significant and that will help us in the future.

As far as all three states are concerned, BJP has been completely exposed on the issue of farmers, unemployment, rights for deprived sections like SCs and Scheduled Tribes (STs). I think the voters have decided that they will support Congress now and that they have nothing to do with BJP which is a very big factor.

The result of this elections has given a major boost to our cadre. Earlier, they used to think that in 2019, BJP alone will win, but they do not think so now. In the entire country, not only Chhattisgarh, Madhya Pradesh and Rajasthan, a boost, encouragement and incentive has been felt. People now think that yes, they are going to go and we are going to come.

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