Amid fresh allegations against Chief Minister Bhupesh Baghel in the Mahadev app scam, the murder of Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) leader Ratan Dubey in Bastar, and a raging debate on caste politics in the state, Chhattisgarh goes to polls in 20 constituencies on 7 November in the first phase of Assembly elections 2023.
This phase will witness an intense political battle between the Congress and the BJP in the 12 seats of Bastar division – 11 reserved for Scheduled Tribes and 1 general seat. The Congress swept 11 out of 12 seats in the 2018 Assembly elections and won the 12th seat in the subsequent by-elections.
Eyes are also set on seats like Rajnandgaon, which would decide the fate of former chief minister Raman Singh, and Kawardha, which would show whether communal politics has penetrated the Chhattisgarh electorate.
The Quint breaks down the key constituencies and candidates in the first phase of polling in the state.
Narayanpur is the most challenging seat for the incumbent Congress as its candidate Chandan Kashyap is going face-to-face against the BJP's Kedar Kashyap, a two-time MLA and former minister. The seat recently witnessed massive unrest over tribals converting to Christianity.
Narayanpur Assembly seat is divided into three parts: Bhanpuri and Mardapal, which are part of Bastar and Kondgaon districts, and Narayanpur, which is in a separate district. While the BJP led from Mardapal and Bhanpuri, the Congress was strong in the Narayanpur area. However, the situation isn't the same this time around.
Kedar Kashyap seems to hold a strong position in this constituency, which has a little over 1.9 lakh voters, including around 99,000 women voters.
Narayanpur saw violence and vandalisation of churches in the election year as the divide widened between the tribals who converted to Christianity and those who didn't.
In Narayanpur district, out of a total of 233 booths, approximately 40 booths are facing issues related to disputes over conversion.
Cutting into the Congress' side of votes, the CPI has fielded Phool Singh Kachlami, a tribal converted to Christianity.
In Kondagaon, Congress candidate and two-time MLA Mohan Markam goes up against BJP candidate and former minister Lata Usendi.
Markam faces a tough challenge in his constituency over issues like anti-incumbency and public anger over employment. His supporters are also upset over his alleged inaccessibility. Markam served as the Congress party's state chief before he was removed and was given a ministerial birth in the Baghel cabinet in July 2023.
The BJP's Lata Usendi is a formidable candidate in this constituency with a total number of 1,88,520 voters, including 97,473 female voters.
Keshkal is another constituency where the conversion row could be a major electoral issue. It will see Congress candidate Santram Netam challenging the BJP's Neelkanth Tekam, a former IAS officer contesting for the first time.
The BJP could potentially benefit due to the conversion row. Another plus for the the BJP is that their candidate had ample time to campaign as compared to the Congress' candidate.
Keshkal constituency houses a little over 2 lakh voters, including around 1.06 lakh women voters.
Antagarh, another constituency marred by the conversion row, will host Congress candidate Roop Singh Potai against the BJP's Vikram Usendi – a former MP and state president. While the BJP has an edge, given the Congress's incumbent MLA Anoop Nag is fighting independently after being denied a ticket, the Congress is banking on its agricultural and loan waiver schemes.
The BJP holds a strong position in this constituency that houses a total of around 1.75 lakh voters.
In Kanker, the Congress has replaced its current MLA Shishupal Sori with former MLA Shankar Dhruv who competes against the BJP's Asharam Netam.
A first-time contender, Asharam Netam is giving a tough fight to Dhruv who had won with a margin of around 4,000 votes in 2013.
There are around 1.82 lakh voters, with women voters (95,082) in the majority.
This constituency holds historical significance – it is the traditional seat of veteran Congress leader Mahendra Karma.
The seat also has an interesting family dynamics in play as the Congress replaced Karma's wife Devti Karma who won the by-elections after Maoists killed BJP MLA Bhima Mandavi in 2019 and fielded her son Chhavindra Karma.
The tussle within the family remains a topic of discussion in the political spheres of Dantewada.
The BJP has fielded Chetram Atami, who is putting up a good fight against Karma and the Congress over issues of employment and Maoism.
Dantewada Assembly hosts one of the biggest iron ore mines under NMDC, yet the locals struggle to get jobs and sustain their livelihood.
With a little over 1.92 lakh voters in Dantewada, the Congress still looks in a better position if it overcomes internal disputes.
Here, Congress candidate Kawasi Lakhma, a five-time MLA and the current excise and industries minister, faces BJP candidate Soyam Muka and the CPI's Manish Kunjam.
Although Lakhma, who once sold oxen and indulged in murga fights, is a veteran Congress leader with significant influence among the tribal population, the seat has always witnessed a triangular contest.
Both Kunjam and the BJP's Soyam Mukka are giving a tough fight to five-time MLA Kawasi Lakhma over the issues of development and the construction of the Polavaram dam.
BJP candidate Vinayak Goyal is contesting from this seat against the Congress' Deepak Baij – current MP and party president.
Baij is a two-time MLA and was appointed the party president after the removal of Mohan Markam in July this year, while Goyal is a first-time contender.
There are around 1.7 lakh voters in the Chitrakot Assembly. The conversion row and employment are the main issues here.
Besides the 12 seats of Bastar, eight more seats including the Assembly constituencies of former CM Raman Singh and Congress minister Mohammad Akbar will also be voting in the first phase of Chhattisgarh elections.
In Rajnandgaon, former Chief Minister and the BJP's Raman Singh will be contesting against Girish Dewanagan, a close friend of current CM Bhupesh Baghel.
The district is well-known for its iron foundries and boasts a diverse population that includes locals, Marathis, and south Indians. It has been a stronghold of Raman Singh since 2008.
In the 2018 elections, Raman Singh got 80,589 votes, while the Congress' Karuna Shukla got 63,656 votes, bringing down Singh's winning margin substantially. This time again, Singh is facing anti-incumbency and allegations of being inactive for the last four years after losing the government in 2018 – and the Congress is eyeing to cash this sentiment.
However, the choice of candidates is hampering the Congress' chance as Dewanagan, who is from Dharsiwan, is facing the outsider tag in the Rajnandgaon seat.
In Kawardha, which witnessed the first major communal incident in the state in recent years, will also be voting in the first phase.
The Congress' Mohammad Akbar won big in 2018, securing over 56 percent of the total votes cast in the Assembly seat. However, this time, the fight is interesting as the BJP fielded Vijay Sharma – also an accused in the communal incident of Kawardha.
The seat is undergoing the introduction of communal politics, and the strategy was further adopted by right-wing outfits in the neighbouring districts as well. The future of communal politics in the state will be based on the results of Kawardha.