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Business News/ Politics / Policy/  BJP has a fight on its hands in Chhattisgarh
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BJP has a fight on its hands in Chhattisgarh

The emergence of the young generation driven by aspirations is threatening to queer the pitch for chief minister Raman Singh

The Congress has promised 35kg free rice every month to the poor. The BJP say it will provide rice at `1 a kg to 4.2 million poor. Photo: Ramesh Pathania/MintPremium
The Congress has promised 35kg free rice every month to the poor. The BJP say it will provide rice at `1 a kg to 4.2 million poor. Photo: Ramesh Pathania/Mint

Bastar/ Rajnandgaon: Samarvram Baghel, a 24-year old tribal, is a twofold beneficiary of the Chhattisgarh government’s electorally sensitive marquee food security programme. Not only is his household enrolled in the programme, Baghel is also employed as a loader in the foodgrain godown in Jagadalpur.

That should, by rights, make him happy and, in turn, do the same for the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) that is seeking re-lection (for a third stint in power) in the state that goes to polls on 11 and 18 November.

He isn’t, though, and that’s the problem for the party, led by chief minister Raman Singh.

Baghel, representative of the young demography of India that now accounts for 65% of the population, is worried about his own future and that of other Adivasis (tribals) in his village, Khamargaon in Bastar region of the state. “Elders are happy. They just want to get rice to eat at least twice a day. But what about us? There have been promises that tribal youth will get jobs or be given government assistance to start their own business; none have been kept. We are made to run around if we need a loan or a job," rues Baghel.

In the last election, the food security programme—entailing distribution of rice at 1 per kg for the poorest and 2 for so-called priority households—was good enough to give the BJP the winning edge.

The emergence of the young generation driven by aspirations is now threatening to queer the pitch for Singh, otherwise known as “Chavur wala baba baba" (a rough translation would be the man who gave rice) among the populace.

While Baghel believes that Singh will pull off a repeat, he says it won’t be easy. “This will be a tight fight, at least in this region," Baghel says.

Indeed, contrary to what opinion polls claim, the message from the ground suggests that the BJP will find it difficult to repeat the clean sweep it pulled off in Bastar, a region beset by Maoists, in the last election. The nearly 40,000 sq. km region extending over seven districts and comprising 12 of Chhattisgarh’s 90 seats is crucial in the BJP’s electoral game plan. In the 2008 election, the party won 11 of the 12 seats—its eventual lead over the Congress was 12 seats.

To be sure, the BJP may pick up this deficit elsewhere in the state.

Jobs and aspirations

In a state where nearly one in two of the 1.73 million voters is aged between 18 and 35 years, jobs and aspiration are predictably the key issues, even though free rice, pulses and power for farmers are the topics drawing traction in political rallies. Recognizing this, the third front, comprising the Left parties, the Chhattisgarh Swabhiman Manch, the Chhattisgarh Mukti Morcha (CMM) and the National People’s Party (NPP), has been campaigning saying there were “no jobs for Chhattisgarhis under Raman Singh".

Balsingh Nagavanshi, a Communist Party of India (CPI) candidate in Keshkal, has been distributing pamphlets comparing the number of jobs given to “outsiders" in government. It claims that of the 191,000 posts in education, 122,367 have been occupied by non-Chhattisgarhis. There are similar numbers of non-Chattisgarhis or non-tribals (tribals account for around one-third of the state’s population) in other sectors: 13,469 police personnel of the 21,990 in the state; 1,248 of 1,700 jobs in power companies; and 1,864 of the 3,000 posts in other ministries.

Mint couldn’t independently verify these numbers.

The Chhattisgarh government denies the claim. “After the state cabinet decided to recruit more people from the 5th Schedule Area (tribal areas), with the permission of the governor, all recruitments at the district levels have been given exception in qualification and relaxation in other parameters in the rules of recruitment for state police, education sector and all other departments. The reservation in districts is proportional to the population of the Scheduled Tribes there," says a state government spokesperson.

Yet, most young tribals remain worried about the lack of opportunities.

“Our lives are hell here. How will our lives improve? The government’s promises that tribal youth will be given jobs remains just a promise," says Mantar, a 28-year-old from Batral village.

Sensing the growing resentment among the tribal youth and fight off anti-incumbency, especially in the Naxalite-affected areas, the BJP in its manifesto released in Raipur on Wednesday promised that 90% of jobs in the government departments in tribal populated districts will be reserved for tribals.

Sympathy factor

Polling in 18 constituencies, 12 of them in Bastar, in Chhattisgarh is being held in the backdrop of a 25 May massacre by Maoists that wiped out most of the Congress leaders in the state. The attack in Darbha valley, Sukhma district, led to the death of 27 people including senior Congress leader and former state minister Mahendra Karma, Congress state unit chief Nand Kumar Patel, and senior party leaders V.C. Shukla and Uday Mudaliar. While the attack destroyed the leadership, it has also generated sympathy that the Congress party is seeking to tap. While the widow of Mudaliar, Alka, is contesting against the chief minister in Rajnandgaon, Devti Karma, the widow of Mahendra Karma, is contesting from her late husband’s Dantewada seat. Patel’s son, Umesh, is standing from Kharasia constituency.

But defeating Raman Singh in his constituency looks difficult. “The medical college he has established and the new international hockey stadium have won the hearts of the youth also. Rajnandgaon is famous for its crazy hockey fans," says Ramesh Patel, Rajnandgaon town president of the BJP. Sympathy won’t suffice, he adds.

The Congress believes otherwise.

Billboards reminding voters of “the martyrdom" of the party leaders are visible across the region.

Factional politics

Local Congress leaders admit that the party has been unable to exploit the circumstances.

“Most of our top leaders have gone, but the factional feud has not," says Roopesh, a Congress worker in Rajnandgaon.

Former chief minister Ajit Jogi, aspiring to be the chief ministerial candidate of the party, began to pull his weight only after he was reassured of a central role by Congress vice-president Rahul Gandhi. The current state unit president, Charan Das Mahant, and Jogi locked horns publicly, but the leaders seem to have declared a “temporary truce" for the election, adds Roopesh.

“We are united like rock and the Congress is poised to return to power," Jogi says.

“We all will go by party tradition in choosing the leader. The elected legislators will pick their leader and the final decision will be of the Congress president."

However, Congress leaders privately claim that the compromise was struck after a majority of Jogi’s nominees including his wife Renu and son Amit were given tickets.

Then, the BJP isn’t immune to factionalism either. Leaders close to Raman Singh say his attempts to weed out the “corrupt" elements in the party have not been successful. The BJP has denied tickets to 13 sitting legislators, but the Singh camp is not yet happy. The recent resignation of party leader and former prime minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee’s niece Karuna Shukla and her campaign against the chief minister is another setback to Singh.

Allegations of corruption have complicated matters. Canada-based contractor Mir Ali has alleged that a powerful leader and public works department minister Brijmohan Agrawal demanded a bride from him, a claim the minister denies. The state’s Comptroller and Auditor General has also found irregularities in the allocation of coal blocks in the mineral-rich state. The audit body came down on the government for allocating coal blocks at “abnormally low" rates that led to a loss of over 1,052 crore.

Populism

The BJP government is banking on the rice scheme and the reputation of Singh. The state has a food security law that many activists believe is better than that passed by the Congress-led United Progressive Alliance (UPA).

Both parties have new populist promises.

The Congress has promised 35kg free rice every month to the poor. The BJP say it will provide rice at 1 a kg to 4.2 million poor.

“We are very happy with the scheme introduced by the Raman Singh government. We get enough rice and chana dal. We just want the government to continue the scheme," says Dinesh, a resident of Batraul village, who works as a mechanic in a small workshop in Keshkal.

The populism has its disadvantages, too.

“Nobody works here. I don’t understand the logic of providing rice at 1 in a state where more than 90% farmers produce rice. Instead, the government should give more money to the farmers so that they can produce more and earn money to improve their lives. Here nobody works; they just want to eat and drink the local liquor," says Amar Bala, a farmer whose family owns around 150 acres of land in Batraul village.

The CPI’s Nagavanshi, too, claims that the popular food scheme does more harm than good. “People here just eat, drink and sleep; they just don’t want to progress any more. They have become lazy."

Analysts point out the irony of this populism being at the other end of the spectrum from the Gujarat model of development that has become the campaign mantra of the BJP’s prime ministerial candidate for 2014, Narendra Modi. The contours of that fight between the Congress and the BJP seem to have been drawn, with the former emphasizing on entitlements and the latter on development.

In Chhattisgarh, though, both parties are stressing entitlements (or more entitlements), although that isn’t entirely surprising in a backward state, say analysts.

Since its formation from 2000, Chhattisgarh has seen some improvement across socioeconomic indicators such as access to banking (from 24.1% of households in 2001 to 48.8% in 2011), ownership of motorized vehicles (from 10.8% of households in 2001 to 15.6% in 2011), and improvement in access to electricity (75% of households in 2011, compared with 53% in 2001).

Still, its literacy rate at 60.2% is lower than the national average of 73%, and the state lags the national average in mobile connectivity—27.2% compared with the national average of 53.2% in 2011.

The lack of a strong “development" message, and the incumbent government’s reliance on a populist message, say analysts, may well be the reason why Chhattisgarh could see a closer fight than expected.

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Published: 08 Nov 2013, 12:08 AM IST
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