The comeback in Chhattisgarh
This time around, the BJP matched the Congress on procurement price, enabling the party to recover lost ground with a crucial constituency
New Delhi In its infancy, Chhattisgarh, a state formed in 2000, chose to elect the Congress for three years. As it evolved, till the age of 18, the state decided to opt for the BJP to nourish it. In its stage of young adulthood, it returned to the Congress for five years. And as the state now enters its next stage of growth, arguably its most critical years for both social and economic investments in a landscape punctuated with desperate pockets of poverty, voters have come back to the force that nurtured it for the majority of its existence.
The fact that voters neither trusted the Congress to rule it in its earlier years for a sustained period, nor has it decided it trusts the party enough to enable its evolution now, is revealing — for this is a region, when it was a part of united Madhya Pradesh, that had traditionally been a Congress bastion.
And Bhupesh Baghel, with the massive majority the Congress won in 2018, had an opportunity to keep the state for the party. Instead, obsessed with keeping his party leadership happy and projecting himself in the Delhi media, the CM took his eyes off the ball and failed to focus on what mattered the most — sustaining the wide social coalition that had brought him to power in 2018.
This social coalition had two key elements. The first was tribals, concentrated in south and north. The second was the wide constellation of backward communities in the plains. Both drifted away, as the BJP win on Sunday showed.
For tribals, Baghel was an OBC leader who didn’t deliver in either the Bastar belt in the south or the Sarguja belt in the north, fostering a clear sense of alienation. It didn’t help that the Congress leadership had promised the chief ministerial mantle to TS Singh Deo midway through the term and failed to meet the promise.
A Rajput leader from the north who as party president in 2018 had played a key role in enabling the Congress win, Singh Deo’s credibility with tribals — for his sensitivity to questions of counter-Maoist operations and issues of representation and welfare — was higher than Baghel’s. The fact that the wider Sangh machinery in general and the BJP in particular continued to work in both tribal regions meant that the party retained a connect even when it didn’t have seats.
At the same time, while Baghel sought to craft an OBC-centric identity for himself and for Chhattisgarh, the heterogeneity within the backward communities manifested in the elections. Baghel is a Kurmi, but it is the Sahus who constitute the single-largest OBC bloc within the state. This constituency had been traditionally with the BJP but shifted loyalties in 2018, perhaps expecting their leader, Tamradhwaj Sahu, to be the CM.
Like Singh Deo, he was in the running to be the state’s leader after the elections; unlike Singh Deo, the party didn’t even offer him the carrot of a future chief ministership.
But beyond caste, across the plains, there was another identity that was central in the 2018 elections — voters saw themselves as farmers and were enthused by the Congress’s promise of higher price for paddy procurement. This time around, the BJP matched the Congress on procurement price, enabling the party to recover lost ground with a crucial constituency.
Put it together, and here is what you have. The Congress failed to heal its organisational divisions with three different leaders pulling in three different directions. In the process, it ended up shattering the wide OBC-tribal coalition that brought it to power.
In addition, Baghel’s government acquired a reputation for corruption, which was leveraged by the BJP during the campaign. It also relied excessively on optics rather than careful organisational groundwork.
On the other hand, the BJP decided not to go into elections with a face. This allowed the party’s various factional and caste leaders to believe they had an equal chance if the party returned to power, adding a layer of motivation. It didn’t get into the caste census trap, which risks alienating communities without necessarily winning over any core group in a state with a complex social mosaic. It had targeted messages for tribals in different regions and backward communities. It contrasted its record of governance with that of Baghel’s government, especially with regard to the everyday corruption that appears to have permeated perceptions of his regime. And, of course, it banked on Narendra Modi’s appeal.
The Congress’s ability to defend even short tenures in office is clearly weak.
The BJP’s record of not just defending longer tenures in office, but also recovering from defeat to make comebacks in relatively quick time, is clearly visible. Chhattisgarh, in these elections, was home to both trends.