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4 reasons Bhupesh Baghel lost Chhattisgarh. His Hinduism outreach isn’t one of them

After giving the biggest landslide to Congress in the history of Chhattisgarh with 68 of 90 seats in 2018, its electorate voted the party out in just one term with the tally reduced to half.

To understand how the verdict is contrary to Chhattisgarh’s electoral behaviour, know that its voters gave three consecutive terms to the previous incumbent, BJP’s Raman Singh, before snapping the rope.

What then explains Bhupesh Baghel-led Congress’ spectacular defeat?

Not soft vs hard Hindutva

Contrary to exit polls, which failed in the 2018 election as well, Baghel’s defeat was foretold. Not because ‘he chose soft Hindutva’, as some critics point out, ‘voters went for the original copy instead’. The Baghel government did indulge in Hindu symbols and also failed to protect the rights of minorities, attacks on Christian minorities for instance, but it’s deceptive to assume that the voter wanted ‘hard Hindutva’ and rejected ‘soft Hindutva’.

In an agrarian state whose economy rests on paddy cultivation and its MSP, Hindutva has rarely been a poll plank nor a defining feature of its people. Voters are not Hindutva bots, certainly not in Chhattisgarh.

During its fifteen-year tenure, BJP under Raman Singh barely raised the shrill communal pitch one witnesses in other Hindi-speaking states. Incidentally, it was only during the Congress’s government that the BJP flashed the saffron line and to which the Congress couldn’t adequately respond.

The correct proposition, then, is the failure of the Congress to meet its self-proclaimed ideals.

And still, it needs to be underlined that the numerical strength of the Christian Adivasis is too insignificant in the state to impact the polls.

Also read: With its betrayal in Bastar, Congress has abandoned adivasi cause — one that gave it power

Activists stood up

Baghel’s defeat lies elsewhere. First, he betrayed his own people and his own promises. Congress had won the mandate for greater devolution of rights to people and a respect for the Adivasis. But two major movements in two different parts of the state, southern Bastar and northern Surguja, rocked the Baghel government for most of its term. These two tribal-dominated zones have a total of 26 seats, with 20 of them reserved for Scheduled Tribes (STs). The Congress had won 25 of these in 2018, but could win just four this time.

It’s instructive to note that Chhattisgarh has not had any civil society movement in its entire history. Such is the state’s character that the long years of Naxal violence, police excesses, and Salwa Judum killings under the BJP rule couldn’t engender any major dissenting voice. As I have consistently pointed out, the first civil society movements emerged in the past few years as a direct challenge to Baghel and his policies. One was against the Adivasi killings in Silger village of Bastar, and the other was the Hasdeo movement against coal mining in northern Chhattisgarh. Significantly, in both the cases, these were Baghel’s erstwhile supporters and voters, even friends, who stood up against his high-handedness. As the Hasdeo movement spread across districts of central Chhattisgarh, a wide range of people and activists turned against the Congress. When the Congress responded by terming the Bastar protesters as Naxals, the party’s former friends shot back: How are you any different from the BJP?

As was with the public anger on the Nirbhaya case and the anti-corruption movement, which emerged from specific instances but soon snowballed into a major challenge to the ruling UPA, Congress lost its first battle in the forested zones of Hasdeo and Bastar.

Turn to Dantewada, a key seat to decode the mood in the Adivasi zone of Bastar, which gifted 8 of 12 seats to the BJP.

During the notorious Salwa Judum years, slain Congress leader Mahendra Karma had three colonels in three districts—Soyam Muka in Sukma, Chaitram Atami in Dantewada, and Mahadev Rana in Bijapur. Attami made his election debut this time on a BJP ticket against Karma’s son Chhavindra from the family’s home bastion Dantewada, a seat his father and then mother had held for long. Atami defeated Chhavindra by 16,803 votes.

Also read: Bhupesh Baghel’s Kaushalya Mandir is Chattisgarh’s own Ram trail. BJP is ‘uncomfortable’

Arrogance unbound

During the Raman Singh tenure, journalists often complained of being hounded by the BJP government. Immediately after taking oath, Baghel inducted two senior journalists, Ruchir Garg and Vinod Verma, in his closest team: the former as his media advisor and the latter his political advisor. Garg, who joined the Congress after an illustrious career spanning over three decades in journalism, was then perhaps the most respected journalist in the state. With such honourable names in his team, Baghel promised an altogether different climate. However, Garg was soon consigned to the margins as the Congress government went after journalists with clinical precision.

The next wave of resentment came with the astonishing rise of Baghel’s closest aide, Saumya Chaurasia, who was granted unchecked authority by the chief minister to deal with bureaucracy. As a junior officer from the state services, she quickly began dictating terms to the most senior IAS officers and was instrumental in a stunning range of administrative and governmental decisions, including transfers, file movements, and project selections. Baghel’s increasing dependence on Chaurasia left the bureaucracy sulking and humiliated.

Fourth, Baghel was in a hurry to diminish his competitors, which unsettled the party. His tussle with powerful minister TS Singh Deo is well-documented. Surguja royal Deo’s eventual loss from his bastion Ambikapur by a tiny margin of 94 votes could have been a music to the CM house, but it might not have anticipated that the fall of a mighty wicket was coincided by the party’s wipeout in the whole zone—the Congress could not win a single seat in the five districts of Surguja division in north Chhattisgarh.

The Congress defeat has gifted space to the BJP, which now has several claimants to the CM post, the topmost among whom is Om Prakash Chaudhary. The young man who quit his flourishing career as an IAS officer to join the BJP just before the 2018 election is considered close to Amit Shah.

A few days before the results, a Congress member, who has been close to the CM house for years now, told me, “I obviously want them to win, but with a much reduced margin. Not more than 50 seats. Their arrogance needs to be contained.”

With such a mood within the party, one could easily anticipate people’s preference.

Baghel led the Congress to victory in 2018. This year, he led them out.

The author is an independent journalist. He tweets @ashubh. Views are personal.

(Edited by Prashant)

Source: The Print

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