A fortnight back, if you asked anyone in Chhattisgarh about the results of the 2023 Assembly elections, the simple reply would have been that it would be a cakewalk for the Congress party.
Some may have even gone a step ahead and predicted up to 65 seats (out of 90) for the grand old party and up to 24 seats for the BJP (Bharatiya Janata Party).
But two weeks is a long time in politics.
The BJP now seems to be giving the Congress a run for every vote. The reasons were clearly missed by most political pundits watching the Chhattisgarh polls.
The old dictum, therefore, stays: only the public knows who will win.
Baghel's Strategy With Chhattisgarhi Sub-Nationalism
The pundits have been forced to scale back. The prediction today is that Congress may win with a slender majority. That’s not good news for Bhupesh Baghel.
And, voter willing, if Baghel loses by a slender margin, it would look as if the public has punished him despite him doing all the right things. After all, the chief minister has successfully hijacked the Sanatani narrative from the BJP.
Sample these – the Kaushalya Mata Mandir and the whiplash-on-the-wrist show at the Gaura-Gauri festival. He literally snatched the conch from the priests when he announced and actually built the Ram Van Gaman Path.
If Chhattisgarhi identity was the sole criterion of victory in the polls, Baghel would be hitting a home run.
He is an unabashed and willing participant in all Chhattisgarhi festivals and cultural events. Chhattisgarhi sub-nationalism, as a term, was unknown as recent as three years ago.
Thanks to Baghel, it is today the right side to be on in Chhattisgarh.
Kaka, as Baghel is popularly known, is the farmers’ darling. Consider these – the Rs 3,200 per quintal minimum purchase price for paddy, the buy-all scheme for paddy during the COVID-19 pandemic.
For his party, Baghel is the best-performing Congress chief minister in India. His public connect is matchless, and he has his finger on the pulse of the public.
He is accessible and has clout in his party, and had enough heft to deny 25 non-performing sitting Congress MLAs a ticket, no questions asked.
What is the BJP Doing Right Now to Counter the Congress?
The first sign of a BJP response to Baghel is the surge in the number of RSS (Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh) boots on the ground. The Congress has no such comparable reserve.
The second reason is that the earlier BJP rule was helmed by Dr Raman Singh, a non-controversial leader with a clean image. Man-on-man, Baghel does not stand a chance against Dr Singh if corruption was the main issue in these elections.
Dr Singh’s record, therefore, shines brighter since he does not have to fight any Mahadev-esque situation. But corruption is a discussion that happens only in the cafes of Chhattisgarh’s cities and urban areas.
Internally, Dr Singh is accepted as the leader by all sections of the BJP. A fortnight ago, he was said to have joined the race late, politically retrieved as he was from virtually a cold storage.
But it now seems that he was introduced to the race late just so that he peaks at the right time. He was a frozen dish that has been served hot to the voters at the right time.
In contrast, Baghel, even if he wins, would look forward to some contest as far as the chief ministership goes.The distractions for Dr Singh are near zero before, during, and after the elections.
The BJP declared the candidacy of more than 40 new faces a month before the Congress. Led by the steady-handed Om Mathur, the party-in-charge of Chhattisgarh, the BJP did not fight shy of fielding veterans such as Brijmohan Agarwal, Amar Agarwal, Rajesh Munat, or Ramvichar Netam. Apart from them, four sitting MPs are also in the fray.
Truth be told, these are names that need not even campaign to win.
Baghel has just about a couple of names that emanate such power, himself being one. The Congress’ 25 new faces seem like a late and insufficient reaction.
And What About the Spoilers?
The BJP’s election management has always been more focused, particularly at the booth level. The party, additionally, is focusing on those 20 seats that it lost in the last elections by a small margin of 5 per cent or less.
The Congress does not have this clinical skill.
Add just five more seats to these twenty attributable to the Modi factor, and you have a BJP victory (with 24 seats predicted for the BJP written at the beginning of the article).
The BJP’s Chhattisgarh Mahtari Yojana may become a clincher. Again, the Congress was the late bird in offering more to the same beneficiary group. The voters will decide if they prefer Mahtari to Grihlakshmi.
A word on the other players in the contest. Unfortunately, the Janta Congress Chhattisgarh (JCC) led by Ajit Jogi, the first chief minister of the state, and the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) are more damaging for the Congress compared to the BJP.
From the Jogi family, three members are contesting the election.
Mrs Jogi is contesting from the Konta seat, while Jogi's son is contesting from Patan against Bhupesh Baghel. Also, Richa Jogi, his daughter-in-law, is fighting the Akaltara Assembly seat.
Amongst these, chances are that only Mrs Jogi might win. The other two might cut more votes for the Congress than for the BJP.
(Ashok Tomar is a political commentator based out of Chhattisgarh. This is an opinion piece and the views expressed above are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for the same.)