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BJP's Consolidation Will Be Hard
To Break In Chhattisgarh

By Yogendra Yadav

21 March, 2004
The Hindu

When 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 the BJP.

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.