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Graffiti on the walls of a hutment at Borai village in Durg district represents the close battle the BJP and Congress are fighting in Chhattisgarh. Photo: Abhiram Ghadyalpatil/Mint
Graffiti on the walls of a hutment at Borai village in Durg district represents the close battle the BJP and Congress are fighting in Chhattisgarh. Photo: Abhiram Ghadyalpatil/Mint

72 seats go to polls in last phase of Chhattisgarh elections today

The 72 seats that go to polls in the last phase today will decide parties' fate

Raipur: Chhattisgarh votes in the second and last phase of assembly elections on Tuesday with the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) fighting 15 years of anti-incumbency and the opposition Congress calling for parivartan (change) in its bid to retake one of India’s youngest states.

With 72 seats to be decided in this round, Chhattisgarh also opens the great electoral marathon between the BJP and Congress and other anti-BJP parties leading into 2019. Chhattisgarh held its first phase of polls on 12 November when 18 seats were contested, including at least 12 where armed Maoist rebels have a strong presence.

Votes will be counted on 11 December along with four other states—Madhya Pradesh, Mizoram, Rajasthan and Telangana—which also go to polls in what has been billed as a curtain raiser to the 2019 general elections. Chhattisgarh is perhaps the closest election to call among the five, with most opinion polls predicting a tight finish.

This is not surprising. In the first election in 2003, the BJP won 50 seats with 39.26% vote share to the Congress’ 37 seats from 36.71% share. Five years later, the BJP and Congress both improved their vote share to 40.33% and 38.63%, respectively and nearly retained their tally at 50 and 38 seats. In 2013, the difference between the vote share of the BJP and Congress was just 0.75 percentage point—the BJP won 49 seats with a 41.04% vote share and the Congress 39 with 40.29%. Among the 18.5 million plus eligible voters this time, nearly 118,000 are first-time voters who could be one of the eventual deciders in a close finish.

Importantly, in all three previous elections, the Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) had a vote share of 6.11%, 4.45%, and 4.27%, respectively. It won two seats in 2003 and 2008 and one in 2013. This time, the BSP has tied up with former chief minister and Congressman Ajit Jogi’s Janta Congress Chhattisgarh (JCC) and the Communist Party of India (CPI) which has had a dwindling vote share in Chhattisgarh, but even its 0.66% share in 2013 could be crucial in the close fights Chhattisgarh is known for. In the 2013 elections, the BJP won eight seats by narrow margins of 600-4,000 votes. In fact, 45 of the 90 seats had a victory margin of less than 10,000 votes in 2013. The JCC-BSP-CPI factor, which according to chief minister Raman Singh himself, will be influential in at least 30 seats and damage both the Congress and BJP, has made the contest all the more interesting.

Slogans define rival narratives in the battle for Chhattisgarh...if BJP’s pitch is for faith in Raman, Congress’ is for change -

Of the 90 seats, 29 are reserved for Scheduled Tribes (ST) and 10 for Scheduled Castes (SC) and it is here that this factor could be the eventual differentiator. In 2013, the Congress won 18 ST seats to the BJP’s 11 but the BJP won nine SC seats and the Congress only one.

The second phase is also likely to decide the next chief minister in the event of the BJP losing the polls. At least four chief ministerial aspirants from the Congress are in the fray in the second phase—Tamradhwaj Sahu, the chief of Congress party’s OBC cell and the only Congress nominee who won from Chhattisgarh in the 2014 polls; T.S. Singhdeo, the leader of the opposition in the Chhattisgarh assembly; Charandas Mahant, Congress veteran; and Bhupesh Baghel, Chhattisgarh Congress chief. Ajit Jogi is also contesting from his home-ground Marwahi. Also in the fray are nine BJP ministers in the Raman Singh cabinet.

Two slogans have defined the rival narratives in this battle for Chhattisgarh. The incumbent BJP has invested its political capital in the slogan “Raman par vishwas hai, kamal sang vikas hai" (We have faith in Raman Singh and there is development with BJP).

The Congress has packed its punch in the appeal for parivartan, with the slogans “Parivartan ka sankalp, Congress hi vikalp" (resolve for change, Congress is the only alternative).

Among anti-incumbency factors, discontent in what is known as India’s “rice bowl" could cost the BJP dearly as the Congress has targeted its failure to keep the 2013 promise of 2,100 per quintal minimum support price(MSP) for paddy.

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