If Chhattisgarh phase one was all about the tribal heartland’s conflict with Naxalism and the political juxtaposition of the two national parties, phase two is a microcosm of the real battlefield of 2014. On one end of the spectrum it would be a real test of Narendra Modi’s ability to deliver the one demographic that he is supposed to deliver to the BJP – the OBCs; while at the other end of the spectrum it would be the ideological fight of the Gandhis against industrialization and their affinity for more leftist interventions as the nirvana that India seeks.
Phase two polling would include two parts of Chhattisgarh – the central OBC belt and the northern adivasi belt. The central OBC belt consists of 49 seats, of which the Congress had won 23 and BJP 24 in 2008 (2 had gone to the BSP). The northern adivasi belt consists of 23 seats, of which Congress and BJP had won 12 and 11 respectively.
The spectacular rise of the BJP in the 90’s across India is widely and wisely attributed to the Hindutva agenda and the Ram Mandir agitation, but there was another feature to that rise which is less well-known; that of BJP’s ability to attract a section of OBCs and other powerful non-Brahman-Thakur-Bania mid-caste Hindu votes (ex: Lingayats in Karnataka, Lodhs in UP etc.)
In Chhattisgarh too, BJP’s rise had been due to revolutionizing the OBC votes in central Chhattisgarh. Before the arrival of BJP on the scene, the entire OBC leadership of this region was captured by the Kurmis despite being in numerical minority of just 8% of the OBC pie. BJP systematically targeted Sahus, Ahirs and other hitherto underrepresented OBCs to create a sustainable vote-bank in Chhattisgarh and in the process the party was able to attract a section of Kurmis too.
Both 2003 and to a lesser extent 2008 victories of the BJP in Chhattisgarh were due to the steadfast support of the Sahu-samaj to the party. Now after the expulsion of the tallest Sahu leader, Tara Chand Sahu, BJP’s grip on this vital vote-bank has loosened considerably; especially after the formation of Chhattisgarh Swabhiman Manch by Tarachand Sahu’s son as a third alternative in this region.
The total population of Sahus (Telis) in central-Chhattisgarh is estimated to be about 22 Lakhs. This means that roughly a 10th of the entire Teli population in India (of about 23 million) is concentrated in this small landlocked region of 12 districts. This is where Narendra Modi becomes important in Dr. Raman Singh’s scheme of things, especially because there are rumours that a section of BJP leadership is secretly trying to cut Dr. Raman Singh and Modi’s wings by sabotaging Chhattisgarh. Although Modi has never really played the OBC card, he will have to exercise this option sooner or later to make inroads into vastly mandalized regions of Hindi heartland. And what better opportunity to test the waters than in Chhattisgarh where it is his own sub-caste that has a rare numerical advantage?
This may sound easily achievable on paper, but the ground realities are stacked against the ruling BJP. The OBC vote-share of the party has been declining steadily over the last 6-7 years and it has reached an inflection point in the run up to the present election. OBCs are particularly unhappy regarding their reservation in the state and the apathy shown by both Congress and BJP to their cause.
Congress has its core-vote of SCs, a section of STs and “others”, whereas BJP’s core votes here have been the OBCs. This is why BJP is facing an uphill task in trying to recover lost ground from phase one election of Monday. 2008 electoral data also demonstrates the loosening hold of the party in the form of two distinct features
- The total turnout in the 24 seats that BJP won last time was lower by 4 percentage points as compared to the turnout in 23 Congress seats; meaning a general apathy towards the former
- The overall victory margin of BJP was also 2% lower than that of Congress in central Chhattisgarh; meaning that BJP seats are more vulnerable than that of the Congress party.
If Narendra Modi can tap the Telis and other OBCs to help BJP win the state after a lackluster phase one and an expected under-performance in northern Chhattisgarh, then this, to use a cricketing analogy, would be nothing short of a miraculous Kapil Dev innings against Zimbabwe in the 1983 world cup which rescued a totally down and out India. Indian cricket team, by the way, went on to then win the ultimate prize, the Cricket World cup, exactly 30 years ago!
If central Chhattisgarh provides BJP an opportunity to come back into electoral reckoning, it is the northern tribal belt that is ideally suited for the Rahul Gandhi brand of politics. It is here in these 7 northern districts that we find large displacements of population due to industrialization and power projects. There is definite discontentment in the air among tribal and farming communities who are almost always unhappy to give up their ancestral land for large-scale projects.
The Congress party has been targeting this area through their ground campaign as well as advertisements to woo the voters by promising to restore their old way of life. In fact, this has been one of the pet themes of Rahul Gandhi to recapture the original Congress vote-bank of Dalits and Adivasis.
A Rahul-Sonia campaign in northern Chhattisgarh should help the Congress party in at least a dozen seats out of the 23. After all this is Gandhi territory where families are still living in a frozen timeframe of Indira Gandhi and her largesse. When Rahul Gandhi invokes his grandmother, there is actually a method to his madness, at least here in the tribal heartland. His campaign could be the crucial differentiating factor as to who would emerge victorious in the state. Yet, there are three important aspects for Rahul Gandhi to consider in phase two;
- As is evident from the vote-share of the two parties, delimitation has helped Congress to consolidate its core vote bank as the SC-ST vote is now equally well distributed. Rahul Gandhi’s task is to ensure that this process of consolidation is furthered in this election
- The absence of Dilip Singh Judeo to campaign for BJP is a boon for the Congress in 2013 in and around Jashpur. Rahul Gandhi’s task is cutout: the party has to now try and garner the Hindu ST vote over and above the “missionary” vote that it already gets
- Tactful handling of Ajit Jogi by the Congress party, especially on the preceding nights before the polls when he creates all hara-kiri is going to be another X factor of 2013
Thus, before the actual battle of 2014, Chhattisgarh phase 2 provides a dress rehearsal for the two principal protagonists to fine tune their strategies and sharpen their knives before they finally enter the warzone. Over the next 3 or 4 days, the men will be separated from the boys and the battle shall commence.
[Past election data source: http://eci.nic.in/ and http://www.indiavotes.com Caste percentage representation derived from: CSDS-Lokniti, Jafferlot Studies, Census data of 1931 & 2001 and author’s own field surveys of past]