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Chhattisgarh: Can Anti-Corruption Rhetoric Be BJP’s Brahmastra in Face Off?

BJP's anti-corruption plank knows no geography and is maybe the only one it can play from its conventional arsenal.

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Can Mahadev, named after Shiva the Destroyer, do the trick for the BJP in a state where there is not much of an appeal for its usual Rama, named for Vishnu the Preserver?

We can certainly invoke such rich Hindu symbolism for Chhattisgarh strangely enough in a state where the Bharatiya Janata Party's (BJP) usual northern appeal based on Hindutva does not cut much ice despite its ancient links to the epic Ramayana.

Assembly elections this month in Chhattisgarh come with a flavour distinct from anywhere else in India. Socio-economic issues are the real deal. It is not surprising that the Enforcement Directorate's pursuit of the alleged betting app Mahadev is being linked by the BJP to incumbent Congress Chief Minister Bhupesh Baghel in a payoff scandal.

BJP' s anti-corruption plank knows no geography and seems to be the only one it can play from its conventional arsenal in Chhattisgarh.
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A Twilight Zone

Facts of the case are less important in long-drawn issues linked to prosecution and trial. For the moment, the politics of optics take over, and the BJP seems to need it like hell in a sprawling state where there seems to be no significant anti-incumbency mood in sight.

In fact, you could call Chhattisgarh a twilight zone state in India's North-South-East-West dynamic, and there is more to it than its location surrounded by Madhya Pradesh, Telangana, Maharashtra, Odisha and a dash of Jharkhand. Its geography, demographics, and mines-and-forest-rich topography make it all the more complicated.

The political shorthand for Congress here is an emphasis on tribal rights, alleged corporate-BJP nexus in coal mining, and plenty of goodies for farmers riding in the ballast of past support for agriculturists.

A promised caste census in a state that has 44 percent for quota-seeking other Backward Castes/Classes (OBCs) sort of completes the defensive layer.

With tribals estimated to be 29 percent of the state's voters, the BJP faces a woody terrain where its usual plain-speaking and postures are on a tough wicket.

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Election Issues of Both Parties Mirror Each Other

It must be said that both the BJP and the Congress have gentlemen politicians as their likely CM options. In a TV serial, incumbent Baghel and his arch-rival Dr Raman Singh could pass off for brothers: chubby, smiling, bespectacled faces; similar attires; erudite speeches; and even some gentle humour in mutual allegations of corruption.

The chief ministers are not the only ones sounding similar even rival manifestos and issues focused on wooing farmers, women, and housewives buying subsidised cooking gas cylinders seem to match up, enough for the Congress to call the BJP's manifesto a "copycat" one.

There is no doubt that the BJP is as much gung-ho on handout politics as the Congress even as Prime Minister Narendra Modi's frowning on 'muft ki revdis' (freebies) is his party's official policy.
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All this naturally brings focus on the BJP targeting unfulfilled promises or corruption during the Congress rule. There seems to be a notable absence of any individual personality appeal of Modi's oratorial or leadership flourish.

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Beyond Political Binaries

"Mahadev" must then be the destroyer for the BJP in a state despite Chhattisgarh being a key location in the epic Ramayana, around which the BJP has built a nationwide religio-political appeal over four decades.

Even as Lord Rama and consort Sita are said to have shared a history with the state owing to their 14-year exile, the state's tribals often follow a host of deities and gods that are outside the normal reach of the Hindutva pantheon.

Naxalite/Maoists and trade union leaders centered around the steel town of Bhilai near the capital city of Raipur make Chhattisgarh a strange political cauldron in which ancient animism and contemporary left thinking bubble up together. Muslims and Christians together barely make up 4 percent of the population.
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In other words, simple political binaries of right/left or majority/minority communities do not work in Chhattisgarh. In terms of area, it is comparable to Odisha but its population of nearly 3 crore is closer to Kerala though the landmass is three times as large as the southern state. About 70 percent of the population or nearly 4 million families depend on agriculture and the bulk of them are small or marginal farmers.

All that means the twilight state is not prone to the usual narratives. A lot of hard work is needed in terms of deliverables and campaigning as well. The BJP is said to be promising farm loan waivers to match the Congress –though that is not official.
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Prime Minister Modi, not surprisingly, is targeting the alleged "30 percent commission" taken by Congress politicians in a mirror image of the Congress party's own plank in Karnataka where it hit the BJP with a similar stick.

This sprawling forested zone is a tough terrain for oratory, but whispers and facts do get transmitted link tribal drums that speak a code language. A lot depends on the mood of silent voters spread across jungles and mines and farmers not given to the loud rhetoric of their northern brethren.

(The writer is a senior journalist and commentator who has worked for Reuters, Economic Times, Business Standard, and Hindustan Times. He can be reached on Twitter @madversity. This is an opinion article and the views expressed are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for them.)

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