Rajnandgaon, Chhattisgarh: Tailwind for Congress up against Modi headwind in BJP bastion

Dipankar Ghose
Chhattisgarh Chief Minister Bhupesh Baghel. (Express photo by Praveen Khanna/File)

Ten kilometres from the town of Rajnandgaon, in Chhattisgarh, Prakash Sahu sits by his fields with a group of friends, their crop cut and sold to the government.

In the last Lok Sabha elections, Sahu says, there was no debate on who to vote for - Abhishek Singh, the candidate, is son of then Chief Minister Raman Singh and was MLA from the Assembly constituency.

Raman Singh may not be a mass leader - "unlike Lalu Prasad Yadav or Shivraj Singh Chauhan" - but is a "good man, and (was) a good Chief Minister", Sahu says. "He fought from here, and that made us happy."

This time, after the BJP's controversial decision to drop all 10 sitting MPs - the Congress had won only Durg seat, out of the state's 11, in 2014 - there is no Abhishek Singh or Raman Singh in the fray from Rajnandgaon. There is another reason staring at Sahu that is making what was considered an impenetrable bastion for the BJP increasingly creaky. "Look at my fields," he says. "I sold my paddy for Rs 2,500 per quintal - Rs 450 per quintal more than what the BJP government offered. Do you know what that means for a farmer?"

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The BJP has lost from Rajnandgaon only once since 1999, when the Congress candidate won the 2007 by-elections by just over 21,000 votes. In 2014, three months after Raman Singh won a third term, Abhishek got the ticket for Lok Sabha polls. Riding on a campaign based on anger against the then UPA government, Narendra Modi's popularity, and the image of his father in a seat that was a traditional BJP bastion, Abhishek won his debut election by 2.35 lakh votes.

This time, the BJP candidate is Santosh Pandey, which is a cause for worry for the local party unit.

A local BJP leader explains: "Nobody here agrees with the decision to drop all sitting MPs… we would have swept the constituency if one of them was a candidate."

Pandey, local BJP leaders say, is an old RSS hand and a strong organiser within the party from Kawardha region. Yet, being a low-profile administrator, he has no recall value for the electorate across the constituency.

He faces Bholaram Sahu of Congress, former MLA from Khujji Vidhan Sabha segment. In 2018, Sahu vacated the seat for Channi Sahu, who won. Besides the fact that the Congress won six of the eight Assembly seats in Rajnandgaon last year, Bholaram's surname also matters here. Hemant Sahu, a Khujji resident, explains: "The Sahu samaj (community) forms more than 50 per cent of the electorate in Rajnandgaon. The Congress candidate is from our samaj, as are two MLAs. We will back the Congress."

But much like most other places, this election in Rajnandgaon is also about the local versus the national, the micro versus the macro. If the Congress has the local factors going for it, the "option for Prime Minister" is a huge factor for BJP. People not just in urban and semi-urban areas but even in rural areas of the constituency say while they wanted a Congress government in the state, Modi is the best option available for the Centre.

For the Congress, a nagging worry has emerged in the last month or so. One of the reasons the party swept six Assembly constituencies in Rajnandgaon, and brought down Raman Singh's winning margin to only 17,000, was farmers' support, and much of that was rallied by Sudesh Tikam of Zila Kisan Sangh. But in these Lok Sabha polls, Tikam is himself in the fray, and may pull away some potential Congress votes.

A political observer in the area says, "Then there is Devrat Singh, the Congress stalwart and (erstwhile) king of Khairagarh who joined Ajit Jogi's Janata Congress Chhattisgarh after being denied a ticket in the Vidhan Sabha elections, and won. His supporters will not back the BSP but will return to the Congress. The big question is whether all these factors are good enough to win back 2.4 lakh votes at a time when Modi is still popular."