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All eyes are on former Chhattisgarh chief minister Ajit Jogi in the run up to the two-phase state polls on 12 and 20 November. The former Congress leader, who quit the party in 2016 to float the Janta Congress Chhattisgarh (J), surprised everyone last month with his announcement of forming a pre-poll alliance with Mayawati-led Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP). The former bureaucrat-turned-politician explains in an interview how he was looking to emerge as a powerful regional force in a state, which has so far been dominated by two national parties. Edited excerpts:

How did the alliance with Mayawati take place? Given that the BSP’s vote share is a shade over 4%, do you think it will make an impact in the polls?

We are two like-minded parties and we realised that. That is why I decided to go with the BSP. She has her vote share in every constituency. It may not be much, but it will benefit us in a three-cornered fight. The margin of loss or victory for each seat in the elections won’t be too high and will be between 2,000 and 5,000 votes.

Given that the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and Congress were neck-to-neck in terms of vote share in the last assembly elections, how many seats do you think your alliance can win?

We are confident of coming to power. In fact, the Communist Party of India (CPI) has also formally joined us. Our understanding is that there are other smaller groups which also want to join us, and they are welcome.

How many seats do you think your alliance will win from the 39 SC/ST seats, out of the total 90?

Last time, the Congress had won just one of the 10 SC seats, while the BJP won nine. This time, we are confident of replicating that success in terms of the SC constituencies, and will win a majority of the 29 ST seats as well.

Why do you think the BJP, in spite of often being labelled as anti-Dalit, was able to win nine of the 10 SC seats?

You see, in those 10 seats, the percentage of people from the scheduled castes is just 20-25%. The fate of the candidates is decided by non-SC voters. But in case of the 29 ST constituencies, the tribal population is about 75%.

Given that the BJP is expected to face anti-incumbency after three straight terms, the Congress will also put up a tough fight. Do you think the alliance can beat both national parties?

The Congress is rudderless in the state and is in complete disarray. It has no big leaders, just district or constituency-wise faces instead. It will suffer heavy losses in the coming elections, as most of its cadres have left. In fact, its core SC/ST vote will shift to our coalition, which is why the Congress is now focusing only on other backward class (OBC) population. You will see many new OBC faces in the Congress now. This time, the anti-incumbency against the BJP is very strong. But it has a lot of muscle and money power, because it has the state machinery on its side. We don’t have money or muscle power, so that way it is an unequal fight. But we are also going to cut into the BJP’s vote share.

Chief minister Raman Singh, in an interview, said that the BJP is confident of winning again. How do you rate his and the BJP’s performance in the last three terms?

Fifteen years ago, before the BJP won, figures show that Chhattisgarh was at the bottom in terms of Naxal-related incidents. Today it is just the opposite and the state tops that list. Raman Singh does not understand the problem, as he thinks it is a law and order issue. It is both a law and order, and socio-political issue. On other aspects, one has to travel across Chhattisgarh to see what the BJP has done in the last 15 years. They have invested crores of rupees on roads itself, which gets damaged in the very first spell of rainfall. When I took over as the first chief minister, the state’s budget was 4,000 crore. Today it is nearly 1 trillion and there is so much of corruption and maladministration.

What is the coalition’s focus in its campaign? What can voters expect in terms of governance if you come to power?

This time our campaign is focusing on four issues. Number one is unemployment, as there are 2-3 million unemployed youth in Chhattisgarh. Second, farmer suicides are another big problem as the community has a huge debt burden. The current minimum support price they get is also not enough. Third, we are focusing on women empowerment and safety. The last and important plank we are talking about is prohibition of alcohol. One thing that has really destroyed Chhattisgarh is the liquor business. These days the state the government has taken over it and it has become a problem among households.

You have repeatedly said that only regional parties can defeat the BJP in the 2019 Lok Sabha elections. Why do you say so? Will your coalition continue till then?

We have finished our negotiations with the CPI for 2019 and are talking to Akhilesh Yadav. In 2014, the BJP onslaught was stopped only by strong regional leaders--Naveen Patnaik in Odisha, Mamata in West Bengal and Jayalalithaa in Tamil Nadu. The BJP swept states where the Congress was in the opposition, because the former works on polarization. Regional forces have regional sentiments, which can conquer communalism. The Congress does not have that kind of an appeal.

You also met Telangana Rashtra Samithi chief K. Chandrashekhar Rao (or KCR) earlier this year. He has been talking about a federal front. Do you see yourself and other opposition parties from other states joining hands in 2019?

KCR and (Andhra Pradesh CM) Chandrababu Naidu are both strong leaders. Akhilesh has also said that he prefers to go with Mayawati than the Congress. This shows the shape of things to come. We will be talking to all regional forces and aim to build an alliance. The BJP will not be able to repeat its performance of 2014 in the coming Lok Sabha elections, because it is something that happens once in 100 years.

How do you rate the BJP-led National Democratic Alliance’s performance so far at the centre?

PM Modi’s graph has come down heavily. They made tall claims of depositing 15 lakh in each bank account, to generate two crore jobs and also said that Pakistan will not dare fire (across the border). Demonetization and faulty implementation of the goods and services tax has ruined the economy, especially the middle level and industries. Only the “Swachh Abhiyan" campaign has seen some success.

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