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New faces, sops to farmers — How BJP outsmarted Bhupesh Baghel in Chhattisgarh

The Congress vote share stood at 42.19 percent, against the BJP’s 46.28 percent. In the 2018 polls, the Congress had won 68 seats, reducing the BJP to 15, ending its 15-year-run in office.

In many ways, the Congress’s apparent over-confidence also proved to be its nemesis, said party leaders, as the BJP, armed with a formidable organisational presence in the heartland state — along with that of its ideological fountainhead, the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh — quietly worked on the ground to turn the tide in its favour.

“We fielded a number of new candidates and ensured that performance was the sole criteria. At the same time a message had gone to the voters that an OBC member of the community will be made the chief minister and the community rallied behind the BJP,” said a senior BJP leader.

According to the leader, the party’s state president Arun Sao and IAS-turned-BJP leader O.P. Choudhary, who won from the Raigarh seat by a margin of 64,443 votes, are among the frontrunners for the CM’s post.

“Learning from our past mistakes, a number of discredited faces were removed by the party. At the same time, an extensive campaign was carried out by the state leadership and central leadership on the ground,” added the BJP leader.

Over the past five years, Baghel, under whose leadership the Congress came to power in Chhattisgarh in 2018, unseating Raman Singh from the post of CM, did try to consolidate his position through a raft of welfare schemes, sops for farmers, while also playing the Hindu card to blunt the BJP’s Hindutva push.

Baghel’s swift implementation of the Congress’s 2018 poll promise to give farmers a bonus of Rs 600 per quintal over and above the Centre’s minimum support price (MSP) for paddy — which is the most widely grown crop in the state, according to agriculture department records — helped him consolidate the party’s position in the initial days of his government.

But soon, infighting surfaced. His government appeared to be tottering in 2021, when the question of rotational leadership first surfaced. Deputy Chief Minister T.S. Singhdeo was miffed with the Congress high command over him not being made the CM, as was said to have been agreed upon.

The simmering tension between the two camps upstaged Baghel’s welfare initiatives as the state gradually approached the election season. Singhdeo even gave up his panchayati raj portfolio in 2022, questioning the performance of his own government.

Eventually, barely five months before the polls, a temporary truce was worked out by Congress president Mallikarjun Kharge, who managed to make Singhdeo agree to take over as deputy chief minister of Chhattisgarh.

In a post on social media platform X (previously Twitter) Sunday, Kharge thanked those who had voted for the Congress in Chhattisgarh and the other three states. He also admitted that Sunday’s results had been contradictory to the party’s expectations.

ThePrint reached Chhattisgarh Congress spokesperson Sushil Anand Shukla over phone for comment and was told that Baghel will be issuing a statement. The report will be updated once his statement is received.

Also read: Fielding MPs in Madhya Pradesh state polls pays off for BJP: 5 of 7 win or headed for victory

‘Couldn’t judge anti-incumbency’

But voters seem to have seen through the Congress’s efforts to paper over the cracks, particularly with the BJP putting up a united front under the “collective leadership” gambit. In Surguja region, the turf of Singhdeo, the Congress faced a complete rout, in a dramatic reversal of the 2018 situation when it had won all 14 seats.

In the tribal-dominated Bastar division, where the Congress had won 11 of 12 seats in the last election, the party’s tally dropped to five, while the BJP bagged seven.

“Soon after the first round polling in Bastar we became assured that we were doing well. This marked the beginning as we became more confident for the second phase. Tribal votes constituted 32 per cent in Chhattisgarh and we had a washout in 2018 but this time round we managed to win those back,” said a BJP functionary.

He alleged “conversion of tribals to Christianity” and “the funding of the Maoist movement by anti-national forces sympathetic to the Congress” as among the factors that worked in the BJP’s favour.

While parts of Bastar continue to be a Maoist stronghold, the Baghel government tried to fill the vacuum through developmental initiatives such as construction of roads, schools and hospitals in the region.

According to official records, roads measuring 1,900 kilometres have been constructed in the past five years in Bastar. But the expansion of the road network also meant setting up of 65 new security camps which emerged as a cause of resentment among the tribals.

Meanwhile, the fact that the BJP stole a march on the Congress on poll promises, particularly on sops for farmers, also helped it race ahead.

For instance, in its manifesto, the BJP had promised to procure paddy from farmers at Rs 3,100 per quintal, Rs 500 more than what the Baghel government offered.

Congress sources acknowledged that the party was unable to gauge the local anti-incumbency against local MLAs.

“The fact that most ministers except Baghel are losing their seats is an indication of that. The tribal belt also moved away from us,” said a local Congress leader.

A second Congress leader added that the party has botched up ticket allocation for the election, as it couldn’t gauge the anti-incumbency factor.

With inputs from Ishadrita Lahiri.

(Edited by Poulomi Banerjee)

Also read: Frenzy of freebies dominated Rajasthan, MP, Chhattisgarh, & Telangana polls. Results varied

Source: The Print

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