FROM HIS kirana store facing a 3.7-km highway stretch in Rajnandgaon, a town in Chhattisgarh, Prashant, a youth with long hair, witnessed two large road shows on consecutive days: one of BJP President Amit Shah accompanied by Chief Minister Raman Singh, and the other of Congress President Rahul Gandhi with his party candidate, former Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee’s niece Karuna Shukla. Rose petals were showered on the marigold- covered vehicles carrying the leaders. Crowds gathered for both. But Prashant and his friends are all praise for their MLA. “Each time someone takes this highway, that person blesses Raman Singh [for it],” says Prashant, “It has changed our lives.”
A few shops down the road, sexagenarian Laxmi Narayan Aggarwal is less impressed with the Chief Minister’s development record. “In 15 years of this being the Chief Minister’s constituency, there is no industry. There’s joblessness,” he says. He is angry with the Union Government’s policies of GST and demonetisation. Yet, when it comes to the Chief Minister, he agrees with Prashant. Singh seems invincible on his home turf.
Along the wide roads in the state’s capital Raipur, with tribal art on the side, it’s Singh’s larger-than-life image, in a white kurta and dark Nehru jacket, that dominates BJP posters, with a large sketch of Vajpayee and photographs of Prime Minister Narendra Modi, Shah, MP Ramesh Bais and state party chief Dharampal Kaushik in the background. Flying on an AgustaWestland helicopter from one constituency to another, Singh, the BJP’s longest-serving Chief Minister, makes it a point to say that every vote for his party candidate would be a vote for him. He is fighting BJP’s battle for Chhattisgarh for a fourth consecutive term almost single-handedly.
In Dadhi segment of Nawagarh, the Chief Minister pitches for his party’s candidate, state cabinet minister and MLA Dayaldas Baghel, saying every vote for him will be a blessing for Raman Singh. Addressing a gathering in Sanjari Balod, he says, “If you vote for our candidate Pawan Sahu, it will be an endorsement of my work.... In Delhi, there is Modiji, and in Chhattisgarh, Raman Singh. If you don’t choose BJP, it can cause hurdles in the development of Balod.” The BJP had lost all three seats of Balod in the last Assembly polls five years ago. He reminds the audience of his government’s scheme of giving 1 kg of rice for Re 1, an eight-year-old programme for which he came to be called ‘chaur waale baba’ (the rice saint), a tag Singh treasures more than any other.
In the crowd, a youth, Sharad Kumar Patel, one of the 3 million recipients of cellphones distributed by the state government, complains that his Micromax handset stopped working after two days. He, however, is also upset with Congress MLA Bhaiya Ram Sinha. “He has never even shown his face in five years.” Gunti Bai, a middle-aged woman who has also come to hear Singh, thanks the Chief Minister for low-cost rice and a pucca house.
As the chopper flies over a landscape of paddy fields, Singh splits his time between a power nap and reading. Coconut water, buttermilk and apple keep him going through the day. He waves to people waiting to see him, flashing their phones and taking photographs amidst a haze of dust blown by the helicopter.
Soft-spoken, understated and amiable, in tune with what locals describe as Chhattisgarhi ‘taseer’ (temperament), Singh’s image appears to have survived the test of three terms. Neither aggressive, nor a fiery orator, Singh is not in the mould of the BJP’s national-level politicians. But he wins hearts with his composure and policies. Those who have worked with him closely describe him as a ‘people’s man’, lending an ear to anyone, friend or foe, who knocks at his door. On the table of his office at his Raipur residence, a plaque facing visitors reads ‘Aap mere liye sabse mahatvapoorna hain’ (you are the most important to me). One corner of the room is dedicated to tribal Dhokra art, where the only foreign element is a miniature brass model of the Eiffel Tower.
Neither aggressive nor a fiery orator, Raman Singh is not in the mould of the BJP's national-level politicians. But he wins hearts with his composure and policies
The odds may not be against Singh. Yet, he is fighting anti-incumbency against his regime, in which several ministers are seen to have slipped into the pitfalls and complacency of being in power for 15 years. The BJP has given tickets to all current state ministers barring Ramshila Sahu; among party legislators, 13 have been denied tickets. “In some seats, we didn’t find better candidates. Last time we had changed the faces. But it didn’t help. Sometimes it turns out to be counter-productive,” says Singh. According to sources, there was concern in the BJP that denying too many tickets to MLAs could result in disgruntled elements working against the party’s interests. The Congress, which has brought in 36 new faces, is hoping to make the most of the BJP’s incumbency disadvantage. For the Bhilai Nagar seat, the Congress has fielded Bhilai Municipal Corporation Mayor Devendra Yadav, a youth leader, who seems to be giving a tough fight to the 60-year-old BJP minister and seat incumbent Prem Prakash Pandey. “There should be change. It’s official raj here. The mayor has done good work,” says YK Chandrakar, who works in the electrical department of the Bhilai Steel Plant. Bhaduri Yadav, a cart seller of bananas who migrated here from Ara in Bihar 40 years ago, expresses similar sentiments, saying he had voted BJP last time, but now wants a change.
The BJP is relying on the Chief Minister to overshadow its shortcomings in the state. Murmurs for a change of government among sections of people have not entirely eluded Singh, the general refrain being ‘He has done good work, but after 15 years it’s time to give someone else a chance.’ Unruffled by this, Singh exudes confidence that his party will achieve its target of 55-plus seats in the 90-member Assembly. The BJP currently holds 49 and the Congress, 39.
In 2013, the BSP and an independent had won a seat each. This time, former Congress Chief Minister Ajit Jogi’s Janta Congress Chhattisgarh (JCC) is in an alliance with Mayawati’s Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP), which in 1998 had secured 13 per cent of the state’s overall votes. In 1984, BSP founder Kanshi Ram had fought his first election from its Janjgir-Champa seat. There are 10 seats reserved for Scheduled Caste candidates, of which the BJP won nine in 2013. These could be crucial in this election, and Jogi, a member of the Satnami community that constitutes nearly 90 per cent of the state’s Scheduled Caste voters (who form 14 per cent of the electorate), hopes to capture these. The Congress, however, has managed to get on board Satnami Guru Baldas and his son Khushwant Saheb. Last time, Baldas had supported the BJP. Meanwhile, another Satnami leader Vijay Guru and his son Rudra Guru have joined the Congress. Rudra has been fielded for Durg district’s Ahiwara seat, where the BJP had won by a margin of 30,000 votes.
According to Singh, the Jogi factor could marginally hurt both the national parties but would harm the Congress “more”. The indefatigable Jogi is aspiring not to be just kingmaker, but king. It’s past 8 pm when he returns to Raipur from a campaign tour and a scheduled visit to a doctor. An iron gate opens into a garden where his two German Shepherds—Prince and Diana—are playing, indifferent to any stranger who walks in. An elderly man in a tiny office with green walls says Jogi has had a long, tiring day, needs rest, and isn’t expected to meet any visitor. But Jogi appears all of a sudden, wheeling into an adjoining conference room in blue denims, a pink kurta and a pink gamchha (stole). He is ready to answer any question. “Raman Singh is facing anti-incumbency,” says Jogi, “He has lost control over the administration.... The Congress is leaderless.” Asked about Singh’s weaknesses and strengths, he says, “His weakness is that he has no strength and his strength is luck. He is an outsider without any vision for the state.”
Despite a committed vote base, the Congress has failed to achieve power in three successive elections
Veteran journalist Lalit Surjan, editor-in-chief of Deshbandhu, a Hindi newspaper published in Raipur since 1959, says the Chief Minister mixes well with the people of Chhattisgarh and has no trace of a vindictive streak. “These qualities have helped him, but I wish he was able to do more substantially on the administration side. There is a perception that a set of bureaucrats are running the government and he is dependent on them. But for this and the shadow of Salwa Judum, he would be a national leader. It could have been said of him like it was said of Vajpayee, that he is ‘the right man in the wrong party’,” says Surjan.
Singh is mellow in his response to praise as well as criticism. “I am happy that among the poor, I am connected to their life.” Asked which single legacy he would like to be remembered for, he opts for the Public Distribution System (PDS) which has aided 5.5 million families. Vajpayee looms large in the state BJP unit, with his images and poetry on the walls of the party office, his face on copies of its manifesto, and his quotations used by Singh at public rallies. Ironically, Vajpayee’s niece is fighting on a Congress ticket against Singh in his Rajnandgaon seat. “Atalji was always against Congress. How can anyone carry forward his legacy in that party?” he asks.
A Rajput himself, Singh was against a ban on Sanjay Leela Bhansali’s Padmaavat (2018), based on the story of Rajput queen Padmavati. An ayurvedic doctor-turned-politician, Singh has no regrets over altering the course of his career. He led the party to victory in 2003, 2008 and 2013 in the state that was carved out of Madhya Pradesh. “Once a doctor, you are always a doctor. It has helped me in formulating health schemes. As a doctor, I could treat around 100 people. Now I have 2.5 crore to take care of,” he says. However, he admits that Naxalism poses the biggest challenge to his administration, saying that while there is some peace in Sarguja, Bastar still faces unrest. Those close to him say his heart is in Bastar and everything he does starts from there.
The BJP hopes to make some gains in the tribal belt, where it holds 11 of the 29 seats (the rest are with the Congress). Jogi claims the JCC-BSP combine will eat into the Scheduled Tribe votes, constituting about 31 per cent of the electorate, of both BJP and Congress, apart from wresting some of the BJP’s OBC votes that form a 46 per cent chunk of the state’s total.
The two national parties are dismissive of what the Jogi- Mayawati combine expects to pull off. Political analysts do not expect the JCC-BSP alliance to win more than a couple of seats, saying that nobody wants to waste their vote, given that it’s shaping up as a BJP-versus-Congress battle. Yet, in a state where wafer-thin margins separate victory from defeat, a third player—the BSP alone got 4.4 per cent of the popular vote in 2013—could upset the calculations of the key parties. In 2013, the BJP bagged a vote share of 41 per cent, and the Congress, 40.3 per cent. With less than a percentage point difference, the Congress is hoping to recapture its historical bastion. Despite a committed vote share in the state, where a large section of older voters revere former Prime Minister Indira Gandhi, the Congress failed to achieve power in three successive elections.
The Congress is fighting without a local leader to project as its candidate for the state’s top post. Its posters bear images of Rahul Gandhi and former Prime Ministers Indira Gandhi and Rajiv Gandhi in the background. The BJP sees the absence of a chief ministerial face as an advantage for it. “There is no face in the Congress. Where is the option?” says Akash, who runs a cloth shop in Raipur. In a nearby denim shop, Prahlad Matlani, complaining that GST has hurt small traders, is optimistic that somebody will emerge as chief minister in the opposition. “The BJP has no face barring Raman Singh. He is tainted. There are no new faces. Before 2003, the BJP did not have a face in the state,” says state Congress Chief Bhupesh Baghel. According to him, Jogi’s parting ways with the Congress was good for the party. “People fear him,” says Baghel, “This time the difference is he is not with us. We will win the SC seats. Non-SC votes could be the deciding factor.” Both the Congress and Jogi blame each other for earlier defeats of the former at the hands of the BJP.
THE BJP IS trying to cash in on a CD controversy that erupted last month, as also a feud among Congress leaders. “[Its] leadership is not cohesive,” says Singh, “There is so much infighting that they cannot even sit in a helicopter together.”
The BJP has given tickets to 14 candidates of the Sahu community, constituting 16 per cent of the state’s population; the Congress, eight; and Jogi, six. However, the Congress, which has got its only Lok Sabha member from the state, Tamradhwaj Sahu, to contest the Assembly polls (signalling that he could be chief minister if the party wins), also expects to get much of the Sahu vote. With the CD scandal having pushed Baghel and state- in-charge PL Punia out of the race, the other Congress leader seen as a possible choice for the top post is TS Singh Deo, leader of opposition in the Assembly.
A Congress poster promises to end the outsourcing of jobs. When asked about it, Singh says that the opposition doesn’t understand it. “We are not getting qualified mathematics and physics teachers despite giving advertisements. Can we shut down the schools there? If a doctor from Raipur is not going to Dantewada, can we ignore the people there? We offered a special package and started sending doctors there. It’s not a permanent arrangement. Gradually, they are being replaced,” says Singh.
Along the brightly coloured walls of village houses, clean roads and dhabas serving masala chai, there are signs of disillusionment with the political rhetoric, though it has not given way to hopelessness. Jamuna Devi, who is waiting for a bus outside a health centre in Bhemitara, says Singh has given her an LPG cylinder, tiffin and a cycle. According to government sources, his administration was the first to give cycles to women. Arun Kumar Devangal, who sells tea, kalakand, samosa and vada at his dhaba in Ahiwara, is an RSS member. His son Prakash Devangal, a polytechnic student and first-time voter, is undecided on who to vote for. “My father is linked to RSS and so he owes his allegiance to BJP. But I am free to decide.”
If Singh gets another term, he could join the league of 10 longest-serving chief ministers in Independent India. “My focus will be on nava (new) Chhattisgarh, doubling GDP and strengthening the health infrastructure, improving telecom connectivity and the power situation,” he says. As his helicopter touches down for the last stop of the day, he tells an aide, “Please ensure everyone gets something to eat.” He still has a long night ahead.