Consolidation Will Be Hard
To Break In Chhattisgarh
By Yogendra Yadav
21 March, 2004
Chhattisgarh votes in its first Lok Sabha elections, the verdict may
institute a new political pattern as well. All indicators point to the
emergence of the Bharatiya Janata Party as the natural party of governance
in the State that was once considered a fortress of the Congress. If
that happens, the BJP and the Sangh Parivar would have taken a big step
towards realising their long-term objective of capturing the entire
adivasi belt that cuts through the middle of India from Gujarat to West
Bengal, passing through Rajasthan, Maharashtra, Madhya Pradesh, Chhattisgarh,
Andhra Pradesh, Orissa and Jharkhand.
The BJP's rise in the State is neither sudden nor surprising. Chhattisgarh
was one of the last areas to move out of the system of Congress dominance.
While the party lost in many places in the Hindi heartland, Chhattisgarh
was one of the regions swept by the Congress in the 1991 elections in
the aftermath of Rajiv Gandhi's assassination. The party won all the
11 seats in this region of Madhya Pradesh with more than a 10 percentage-point
lead over the BJP. Since then, however, the BJP has started reaping
the political dividends of the years of work put in by the Vanvasi Kalyan
Ashrams and various other Sangh Parivar organisations; and it has improved
its position in each Lok Sabha election. Its tally has risen from six
to seven and then to eight in the last three Lok Sabha elections. Its
lead over the Congress has also increased every time, from less than
one percentage point in 1996, to three points and then four points in
the next two elections. The Assembly elections held in this period did
not fully reflect this rise of the BJP. The Congress did better and
held on to a slender lead in this region till as late as 1998.
The BJP's victory in the December 2003 Assembly polls was the culmination
of this decade-long political consolidation. Yet it must be underlined
that the BJP's win in Chhattisgarh was far from spectacular. Compared
to the grand success in Madhya Pradesh and the comfortable victory in
Rajasthan, the BJP could be said to have just scraped through in Chhattisgarh.
While the party secured a clear majority of 49 in a House of 90, its
vote share was only 39 per cent, just three percentage points ahead
of its rival, the Congress. But for a massive and unexpected wipeout
in the southern tribal region, the Congress could well have returned
to power. Alternatively, if the Congress had not suffered a split leading
to the exodus of the group led by Vidya Charan Shukla or had it worked
out an alliance with the BSP, the BJP would not have secured a majority.
The Vidhan Sabha election verdict helps us see the nature of the social
alliance worked out by the BJP to reach its current position of power
in the State. The long dominance by the Congress in the State was based
on its hold over the adivasis, Dalits and the Other Backward Castes,
who together constitute an overwhelming majority of population in this
backward State. The BJP has managed to build a base not only among the
upper castes, but also extended it to the OBCs. Among both these groups,
it secured a lead over the Congress. But its real success has been in
dividing the adivasis, who constitute about 32 per cent of the population.
The estimates of the Centre for Study of Developing Societies for the
Assembly election suggest that the BJP got as much votes among the adivasis
as did the Congress. The Dalits did not shift to the BJP, but they constitute
only 12 per cent of the State's population, and in this category too
the BSP damaged the Congress. The Congress still draws more votes from
women and from the poor, but it is not clear how much of this support
is committed to the party. The State's adivasis are concentrated in
the northern and southern regions. While the Congress has been wiped
out from the south, it has retained some influence among the adivasis
of the north. The central region comprises the plains and houses all
the islands of urban and industrial growth in the State. Mr. Jogi managed
to retain some influence for the Congress in this region with the help
of some developmental work. Now, the region may swing back to supporting
If one takes the outcome of the recent Vidhan Sabha elections as the
baseline, the contest in Chhattisgarh appears very evenly poised. If
the same pattern is repeated in the Lok Sabha elections, the BJP will
pick seven of the 11 seats in the State, one less than its tally last
time. If it manages a swing of two per cent in its favour, the tally
would equal last time's score. Another two per cent would bring the
party close to a clean sweep, with 10 seats. On the other hand, the
Congress too has a good chance, at least on paper. If it manages to
wrest two percentage points from the BJP, it will pick up an additional
seat. A four per cent swing in favour of the Congress will reverse the
tally to make it 7-4 in its favour.
However, the reality on the ground is not as the comfortable for the
Congress as the statistics might show. A victory in an Assembly election
normally has its spillover effect on a party in the Lok Sabha polls
if they are held within a few months. Even if the first victory is slender,
the ruling party tends to expand on its lead in the subsequent elections.
The BJP Government in Chhattisgarh is still in its `honeymoon' period.
Anticipating the Lok Sabha elections, it has unveiled a number of populist
schemes: supply of salt to adivasis at 25 paisa a kg, free gas connection
to 50,000 below-the-poverty line (BPL) families, a full meal for Rs.
5 at the state-sponsored `dal-bhat' centres and the waiver of farmers'
loans up to Rs. 3,000. It has also announced a scheme to give adivasis
pattas for the forest lands they dwell upon. It is true that the schemes
are far from perfect and that their implementation is rather tardy.
The Supreme Court has already stayed the scheme of giving pattas to
adivasis. Yet the announcement itself may matter more than implementation
in such a short period. At any rate, it would be very unusual for the
electorate to decide to punish the new government at this stage.
That is not all. The Congress organisation has taken a serious beating
after the defeat in the Assembly elections. The former Chief Minister,
Ajit Jogi, who ran the Congress in an autocratic style during the elections,
was suspended immediately afterwards for indulging in horse-trading
of the elected MLAs. He remains in a state of suspended animation and
so is the Congress. In comparison, the BJP resolved its leadership conflict
without as much damage to the party organisation.
The party's confidence level can be gauged from the fact that it is
thinking of fielding Dilip Singh Judev, who was caught on tape allegedly
accepting a bribe, in the Lok Sabha elections.
The BJP's national leadership is leaving nothing to chance and is making
efforts to ensure that much of the 7 per cent votes that went to the
Nationalist Congress Party in the 2003 Assembly elections will now come
to the BJP. Arvind Netam, the adivasi leader, and Mr. V.C. Shukla, the
former Congress stalwart who formed a party of his own after breaking
ranks with Sharad Pawar's NCP, have joined the BJP. The combined effect
of the newly-formed BJP Government, the decimation of the NCP and the
demoralisation of the Congress could be more than the State Congress
can handle. It has to come up with something miraculous to save a few
seats in Chhattisgarh.