Misfired OBC gambit, infighting: How to lose a mandate in 5 years

how to, misfired obc gambit, infighting: how to lose a mandate in 5 years

Raipur, Dec 03 (ANI): A view of the Chhattisgarh Congress office during the counting of votes for the State Assembly elections, in Raipur on Sunday. As per official EC trends, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) is leading in the state with 54 of the total 90 seats. (ANI Photo)

On December 17, 2018, four men stood in Raipur’s indoor stadium to a cheering crowd, their hands held aloft in victory. To the left were TS Singh Deo and Tamradhwaj Sahu, senior Congress leaders who had just won but lost out on the top job. In the centre was Rahul Gandhi, and to his right, was Bhupesh Baghel, the man who would be the first Congress chief minister for decade-and-a-half. Politically, it was a heady time. The Congress had won a decisive mandate, winning 68 of 90 seats, and the BJP’s only senior leader, chief minister Raman Singh, had been soundly beaten. Chhattisgarh had voted for the BJP three times, and was not a state that seemed amenable to switches of power. Five years later, those advantages lie frittered away — despite the BJP not mounting an aggressive campaign, the Congress government has collapsed under the weight of its own contradictions.

Immediately after coming to power, with the 2024 Lok Sabha elections on the anvil, chief minister Baghel set off on creating a regional Chhattisgarhiya identity, promoting traditions and festivals. This identity was rooted in OBC politics, the argument being that the backward classes formed a bulk of the population. Senior Congress leaders now admitted that this was a key strategic error, which was shown up even in 2019, when the Congress only won two of 11 Lok Sabha seats on offer.

“In Chhattisgarh, the OBCs do not necessarily vote on caste like the rest of the Hindi heartland, except the Sahus that have turned decisively towards the BJP. The Chhattisgarhiya identity applies only to the rural plains, and in that sense, we forgot about the tribals, who vote as a group. We had swept the tribal regions, and have now been swept out of them. Most tribal leaders worked against each other and the party did not pay attention to this,” a senior Congress leader said.

Of the 29 seats reserved for Scheduled Tribes, the Congress won 25 in 2018, and has now fallen to 11 seats. Overall, the BJP won 56 seats and 46.36% of the vote share, up from the 15 seats and 33% vote share in 2018.

The other issue, Congress leaders said, particularly in Bastar, was concerns raised by local tribals against “forced conversions”. Local communities across the 12 seats of Bastar, particularly in an around Narayanpur, have raised concerns of their members being proselytized by Christian missionaries.

“The BJP created this narrative well, and was able to convince people that the Congress was against tribal culture. Our lack of focus on these concerns has cost us,” a senior Congress leader said.

Another senior leader said that a simmering leadership struggle within the Congress in the wake of the 2018 win also cost the Congress. When Baghel was appointed chief minister, some within the Congress suggested it was part of a shared power arrangement with TS Singh Deo, who holds sway in north Chhattisgarh.

“This crisis played out several times over the past five years, and in north Chhattisgarh, Singh Deo was no longer seen as a political heavyweight. In Surguja that has 14 seats, the BJP has swept the region. The Congress also angered the Sahus by their mistreatment of Tamradhwaj Sahu, who thought he was going to be chief minister, but the job was given to Baghel instead. Instead of resolving these issues, they were allowed to fester, and the results are before us,” a senior Congress leader said.

Political experts said that the Congress hoped that their welfare schemes, from prices of paddy for farmers to those of minor forest produce for tribals, would help the party overcome these factors, apart from Baghel’s personal popularity which had seemingly permeated to the ground as effectively as it had percolated to the national media.

“Basically, there has been a fundamental sense of overconfidence in the government’s schemes. But voters wanted a new narrative that they were not offered by the Congress. It is clear there was gross mismanagement in the campaign, and MLAs were left alone to campaign in their constituencies,” Harsh Dubey, a Chhattisgarh based political commentator said.

A senior Congress leader admitted a failure of reading the ground sentiment. “We were hoping that the party’s schemes will help garner votes but that has not worked. This vote share difference showed there is an undercurrent against us which we were not able to gauge,” the leader said. The party had a vote share of 42.4%.

Former Chhattisgarh cihef minister Raman Singh, one of the contenders of the top post again said, “People knew that the Congress guarantees are fake, that Baghel didn’t fulfil his promises, and that Prime Minister Modi would fulfil those he has made.”

Such is the scale of the BJP victory that all four men that stood victorious in December 2018 now stand diminished. Bhupesh Baghel as a chief minister who failed to lead the Congress back to power; Rahul Gandhi who now stares at a daunting 2024 challenge; and Singh Deo and Sahu, who now cannot even call themselves legislators.

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