Chhattisgarh Chief Minister Bhupesh Baghel campaigns in Raipur, October 3, 2023
IT IS MID-AFTERNOON AND THE CROWD HAS started to gather for Chief Minister Bhupesh Baghel’s address at a roadside pavilion near Sendari in Bilaspur district. While Baghel is expected to come a bit later in the day, a steady dose of songs, speeches and the usual ‘stage management’ are for everyone to see. At the edge of the field where the pandal has been erected, Dwarka Prasad Bharadwaj from Sendari is chatting with his co-villagers about local politics. Bharadwaj has just sold off his rice crop in the local mandi. He grows the short-duration Haruna variety of rice.
Bharadwaj is like millions of other farmers in Chhattisgarh’s central rice belt. From Mungeli at the western end to the edge of Janjgir-Champa in the east, it is this class of farmers who grows rice, has small or marginal landholdings, and is routinely in debt that lies at the heart of Chhattisgarh’s politics. These farmers will make or mar any party’s chances in 52-odd seats of the 70 that go to polls on Friday, November 17.
At first, Bharadwaj shies away from making his political choice known: one has to infer it indirectly. He owns 3.5 acres and has a debt of ₹50,000. The choice of Haruna is revealing. Like other smallholders, Bharadwaj needs cash quickly and does not have ‘holding power’ to store rice (he lacks the space) and wait for a better price when demand is high. He gets around 25 quintals from his land and is now within the limit of what the Chhattisgarh government purchases from farmers. He steadily opens up and says the last loan waiver, in 2019, helped him. But five years down the line, he has accumulated more debt and wants relief from the government. He says he will vote for a government that will waive off his loan. Congress has promised another loan waiver if it returns to power in the mineral-rich state.
It is this constituency that both the ruling Congress and the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) are trying to woo. BJP has promised to purchase rice at ₹3,100 per quintal in case it forms the government and make the payment at one shot unlike the present system where farmers are paid in installments. Within days of the announcement, Congress promised to pay ₹3,200 a quintal. It currently buys rice at ₹2,173 a quintal and when an input subsidy of ₹600 a quintal is factored in, the effective purchasing price goes up to nearly ₹2,800 (see interview).
These are attractive terms for most farmers like Bharadwaj that Open spoke with. So, is this a political trend as in 2018 when a large number of farmers waited to sell their crop after Congress had made a similarly attractive pitch to them?
There is a catch, however, in making such an assessment. While the rice purchase season has begun (mandis opened for buying on November 1 and the season continues till January 31 next year), arrivals in markets are patchy. For one, rainfall was delayed this year and the crop is yet to mature in the central districts. For another, smaller farmers don’t have the holding power to wait until the results are declared on December 3.
But some signals are clear.
At Ranai village in Koriya district in the northern part of the state, farmer Shiv Charan Sahu is busy winnowing his rice crop manually with his wife. Sahu’s village falls in the Baikunthpur constituency from where Bhaiyalal Rajwade of BJP is contesting. Sahu is a marginal farmer who owns 2.75 acres and has a debt of ₹27,000. He, too, was a beneficiary of the last loan waiver. He plans to hold his crop for sale until December. He has enough storage capacity even if he is desperate to sell the rice. The combination of a loan waiver and a higher price per quintal promised by Congress is politically enticing for him, although he does not openly declare his voting intention. But he bitterly remembers the time BJP was in power when farmers like him were denied the bonus promised to them by the Raman Singh government.
Does that mean BJP’s chances of regaining power in Chhattisgarh are dim? Well, it is not quite that simple.
In a number of constituencies, incumbent Congress is facing a backlash due to the poor performance of its MLAs. It is one thing for farmers to feel bitter at being deprived of their promised bonus by the last government but quite another for MLAs of the ruling party to be ineffective. Baikunthpur is an example. Here, the BJP candidate, Bhaiyalal Rajwade—who was the local MLA from 2013 to 2018—is pitted against Ambica Singh Deo of Congress. The general refrain is that while Rajwade is accessible, Singh Deo is not. Even after his defeat in the last election, Rajwade—who was labour minister in the third Raman Singh government—continued to work in the constituency. A number of people attest to his helping hand for the poor in Baikunthpur, especially when it comes to healthcare.
In a number of constituencies, Congress is facing a backlash due to the poor performance of its MLAs. It is one thing for farmers to feel bitter at being deprived of their promised bonus by the last government but quite another for MLAS of the ruling party to be ineffective
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Then there are other political decisions weighing heavily against the ruling party. At one time, Koriya—where Baikunthpur is located—was a big district. But in September 2022, it was bifurcated and a new district, Manendragarh-Chirmiri- Bharatpur, was carved out, a decision that has not gone down well with many people. It is a decision that may come to haunt Congress in at least two constituencies—Baikunthpur and Manendragarh.
Chirmiri, a coal-mining town in the hills of the erstwhile Koriya district, is now a shell of its former self. It is part of the Manendragarh constituency. In Chirmiri, a mix of grievances has put Congress on the defensive. After the new district was formed, the locals wanted some district offices to be located in the town. But as the district headquarters, all key offices are in Manendragarh. This comes against the backdrop of South Eastern Coalfields Limited (SECL) closing six of the eight coal mines operated by the PSU over the past 15 years. The move has not only led to rampant unemployment in a town that was once booming but also to a large number of people migrating to other parts of the country in search of work. The population of Chirmiri has shrunk from 1.5 lakh at its peak about a decade ago to less than one lakh now.
On top of it, Congress picked its candidate, Ramesh Singh Vakil, from Manendragarh. The party denied the ticket to sitting MLA Vinay Jayaswal—who was a local from the town—and dispatched him to Raipur for party work. This has not gone down well with the people of Chirmiri either. Chandan Gupta, a local BJP activist, says no one has won from the constituency when the ticket has been given to someone hailing from Manendragarh.
The calculation was explained to Open by a senior Congress leader in the area who said the decision was based on picking a candidate who could ensure a lead for the party in two of the three regions of the constituency. The three regions are Manendragarh, Chirmiri and Khadgawan. Of the three, Khadgawan is a farming area where Congress has an advantage but the choice of candidate seems to have antagonised the people of Chirmiri. If that were not enough, there are spoiler candidates, such as the one from the Gondwana Gantantra Party (GGP), championing identity politics among Adivasis in Chhattisgarh, which are likely to eat into the Congress vote disproportionately when compared to BJP.
These are just two examples of how candidate selection and political-administrative decisions are creating headwinds for the ruling party. The story is being repeated across the 14 constituencies of the Surguja division in the northern part of the state. In 2018, BJP did not win a single seat in the region; this time, it is giving a tough fight to Congress in almost all of the 14 seats.
THE REFRAIN AMONG many observers that Open spoke to in Bilaspur, Ambikapur, Bemetara and Raipur is that the ruling party’s situation would have been worse had it not been for the Baghel government’s incentives for farmers.
Farmers, clearly, have been at the heart of Congress’ strategy. At the same time, this excessive reliance has not escaped the notice of certain sections of the party. A close adviser of a senior party leader told Open: “From higher prices for rice to buying cow dung to input subsidies, our focus has mostly been on farmers.”
This raises an interesting question: Can ‘top-down’ measures, such as attractive procurement prices for crops, input subsidies and a heady dose of symbols used to champion regionalism, fix ground-level political problems like poor performance of MLAs? The headache for Congress is its MLAs who have become unpopular over time as they are absent from their constituencies or are thought to be ineffective by the people they represent.
One answer is obvious. The results will tell on December 3. But until then, some conjectures are possible. In the rice bowl belt, these measures have worked to a great extent but what about constituencies that have agriculture as their mainstay but are not necessarily dominated by rice cultivation? Do other factors intervene to make the political battle more interesting?
One example is the Bemetara-Saja-Kawardha belt of the old Durg district not far from state capital Raipur. Bemetara district, which has two Assembly constituencies—Bemetara and Saja— is a case in point. Here, a large number of farmers from Punjab and Haryana have settled over the last 15 years. These farmers began growing a variety of cash crops like sugarcane, vegetables, and even fruits like bananas. Over time, local farmers copied the practices of the newcomers and now rice is one among many crops grown here. The combination of settlers from outside the state and a modicum of prosperity, when compared to other rice-belt constituencies, has ensured that the usual incentives have little purchase.
In Bemetara there is an added political layer. In April this year, a youngster, Bhuneshwar Sahu, lost his life in communal violence. The Sahu community is spread across the state but is numerically strong in Bemetara and Saja constituencies. The incident took place at Biranpur village of Saja. Until then, Congress’ Ravindra Choubey, the sitting MLA, was considered a shoo-in this time as well, for he maintains a strong connect with the local community. But things are changing and he has a challenger from BJP in the form of Ishwar Sahu, father of Bhuneshwar Sahu. Sahu Sr is not a well-connected and seasoned politician like Choubey but he has a measure of sympathy on his side.
Minus the April flare-up, Saja was just another nondescript town that served as a market for agricultural inputs and crops. In such places religion does not have a visible presence but something has changed in Saja since April.
At the block Congress committee office, Santosh Verma, the local Congress boss, is at pains to deny that BJP is a force to contend with. “They have a single issue,” he says, referring to the incident in April, “And they are trying hard to cash that.” In his office he points towards Jethuram Sahu, the sarpanch of Biranpur who is sitting quietly among a gaggle of party workers. “Ask him,” Verma says while pointing to Sahu and adds, “He will tell you there is no sympathy factor at work here.” Sahu nods affirmatively. It is another matter that in April Sahu was quoted as saying, “We want to live peacefully… but these inter-religion marriages are wrong. Muslim men are taking Hindu girls away.” It seems in a span of seven months Sahu has become secular and Congress has woken up to the political risk if it does not win over people from Biranpur and its adjoining areas.
In contrast, the local BJP convenor Nathmal Sahu raises a very different set of issues. “Rice and bonus may be issues in 89 constituencies but not here. We are working hard to spread the message of the Mahtari Vandan Yojana and raise awareness about our promise to our sisters,” he says, referring to BJP’s promise of giving women ₹1,000 a month if it is voted to power. This has touched a raw nerve in Congress with none less than Chief Minister Baghel questioning the promise.
It is an open question as to who will prevail in Saja, Choubey or Sahu. It is notable that this belt (Bemetara-Saja-Kawardha) is the only one where there is ‘communal appeal’ in the state. In Kawardha, which voted on November 7, Congress’ Mohammad Akbar is pitted against BJP’s Vijay Sharma. Akbar, who had won by a huge margin from the same constituency in 2018, is expected to sail through this time too, but the competition, according to local observers, is far stronger than the one-sided show last time.
What is interesting is how the dynamics of the electoral fight in Chhattisgarh are changing. Until a month or so ago, Congress was expected to comfortably extend its stay in Nava Raipur by another five years. After all, Baghel, a canny politician, had used the last five years to woo farmers. He had also crafted a set of local symbols—from the presiding deity of the state, Chhattisgarh Mahtari, to the local anthem extolling the Arpa and Pairi rivers— and the same set of farmers who are being courted are the bearers of this Chhatisgarhia-vaad. But suddenly, a challenge is visible. December will tell whether the Mahtari will deliver a bounty of seats for the party or will look away, favouring someone else.