Some time during the second week of November, a farmer on the outskirts of Dongargarh explained the agrarian distress to me. He listed out the input costs and juxtaposed it with returns. "We do not even break even, let alone make a profit," he said. "Because of that, our children do not want to be farmers. But there are no jobs either, so they end up working as labourers."
The farmer cultivated paddy, the predominant crop grown in Chhattisgarh. His narrative was similar to the one I had heard in nearly every agrarian region. However, while we discussed the Assembly elections over a cup of tea, I noticed stacks of gunny bags filled with rice in his house. When I asked him what that was, he said, "I will sell it after 11 December."
As a reporter, I cannot predict the outcome of an election. One should not either. What one can do is pick up signs of where the wind is blowing, and this conversation in Dongargarh was one such indicator.
I met several farmers later, many of whom said they have withheld the sale of their harvest. To substantiate the anecdotal evidence, I checked the website of the Food Corporation of India. By the end of the first week of December, the Chhattisgarh government had procured 1.1 million tonnes of paddy. For a state where the crop was harvested on time, the number was on a fairly lower side.
Congress president Rahul Gandhi had travelled from district to district, promising to raise the Minimum Support Price of paddy to Rs 2,500 per quintal from Rs 1,750 if the party was voted to power. The farmers were so confident of a government change that they strategically decided to sell their harvest after 11 December, so they would get better rates for their produce, even if it meant delayed returns. For a state where 76 percent of the rural population is engaged in agriculture, this was a significant giveaway that indicated the likely election result.
Speaking of giveaways, the entire Dongargarh constituency had several indicators of a BJP rout. It was the seat the BJP had never lost since Chhattisgarh was formed. It was even reserved for a Schedule Caste (SC) candidate, where the alliance between Ajit Jogi and Mayawati should have played a factor. Yet, the Congress seemed comfortably ahead through most of counting on Tuesday, with party candidate Bhuneshwar Shobharam Baghel going on to win the seat.
In fact, the alliance appeared to be hurting the BJP, a trend not many had been speaking about. Considering that around 65 percent of the Congress' vote comes from SC communities and tribals, the simple arithmetic would have suggested that the alliance would only eat into the party's vote share.
But a few days after visiting Dongargarh, I got on the phone with Congress leader Ruchir Garg. "Ajit Jogi dented the Congress more when he was with the Congress," he said. "He is, in fact, unknowingly helping us this time around."
Garg was spot on. It is an open secret in Chhattisgarh that Jogi, a popular face among the Satnamis — an influential community with the SC status — had diverted their votes away from the Congress in 2013. Nine of the 10 SC-reserved seats in Chhattisgarh, therefore, had been with Raman Singh's party.
Jogi was hoping to be the kingmaker and trying to remain relevant in electoral politics, having broken away from the Congress. He had to make a mark in those 10 seats, but they were not for sale this time around. On one hand, Jogi managed to get the votes he had swung towards the BJP and make a dent in their base in a concentrated nature, which immediately reflecting in the outcome of the seats. On the other hand, though he may have eaten into the Congress' votes to an extent, this was across the state.
There were rumours in the political circles of Raipur that the BJP had funded the Ajit Jogi-Mayawati campaign. Regardless of whether it is true, the BJP certainly hoped to gain from the alliance. But the saffron party misread the situation terribly.
The anti-incumbency in Chhattisgarh even withstood the infighting within the Congress leadership. State party president Bhupesh Baghel had actively tried to sabotage the election campaigns of two top leaders, but it did not matter.
Largely, when the rural regions seemed angry with the BJP, the urban centres seemed to be backing it. But in Chhattisgarh, the disillusionment among first- and second-time voters, who had been smitten by Narendra Modi, was palpable. Competent youngsters with decent degrees were making their ends meet through daily-wage labour. Lack of jobs drove them towards polling booths more than anything else.
This confirms how sub-national Chhattisgarh is as a state, where local issues trump the "national" ones. The BJP could not whip up religious or nationalist sentiments to create momentum here. In Adivasi regions, people were disappointed with the Raman Singh government for opening up forestland for commercial exploitation, making a mockery of the Forest Rights Act.
In the Adivasi region of Bastar, Modi had invoked the term "Urban Naxals" in his rally, which hardly resonated on the ground. Up until now, the prime minister would drag the BJP around the halfway mark even when it seemed to be struggling. We saw this both in Gujarat and Karnataka. But in Chhattisgarh, Modi could not make an impact. This was probably why he only held three or four rallies in the entire state.
Rahul, on the other hand, ran a consistent, decent and pertinent campaign. One could see the crowd respond to him. And the fact that the farmers took a gamble on him and waited to sell their harvest till after the election results were declared is significant validation of his acceptability. Rahul focussed on rural distress, jobs and the BJP's appeasement of crony capitalists. He set the agenda, and his leaders on the ground clinically went about their business in every constituency. They were low-key, but resolute.
Chhattisgarh may well have given the Congress its campaign model going in to 2019.
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Updated Date: Dec 12, 2018 10:14 AM