Jagdalpur, the district headquarters of the tribal Bastar region was lit up by extravagant firework and bathed in confetti on Thursday. Chief Minister Raman Singh and the face of the Bharatiya Janata Party was in town. As he crisscrossed the town atop a customized bus, the chief minister, who bucked anti-incumbency to retain the state assembly in November, hardly spoke, even in places where the bus stopped. He merely beamed and waved to the crowd. In Chhattisgarh, that is enough.
"The BJP is still riding the high of the assembly elections. The scheme to give rice at Rs 3 per kg had really paid off during the assembly elections and it still enough for the Lok Sabha election," said Narayana Rao, a local businessman.
Doling out rice at Rs 3 was how the BJP won over the tribal belt, a stronghold of the Congress in the past. Also, right from the assembly election, the BJP has made it a point to project Raman Singh ahead of the respective candidates.
In the sprawling Bastar region, which has two Lok Sabha constituencies Bastar and Kanker, that is even more important because the 70-year-old sitting MP Bhaliram Kashyap has attracted the ire of the constituents. Even during the CM's roadshow, the candidate was wise enough not to take the centrestage. "We will vote for the party. Personally I am not for Bhaliram. He has gone to the Parliament just for six days in the past five years. How can we trust him? But the party has chosen him. So, he will win. But they could have chosen someone younger. Even his son would have
done," said Ram Kashyap, a 19-year-old first time voter.
So, it is the chief minister and his brainchild, the rice scheme, are what the BJP are depending on. Even the Communist Party of India candidate Manish Kunjam agrees. "The main reason for their new domination in the tribal belt is the misuse of government machinery. But the rice scheme has really caught the attention of the poor tribal people. But since it is the ruling party, they also use their dhan bal," Kunjam, who contested the assembly election only to lose to the BJP.
But this time around, the fight will be tough, observers say. "The Congress is nowhere to be seen. They are clueless. The mantle of leading the fight against the BJP has fallen on the CPI. And it is the only party that is now going to the various communities hoping to garner support against the BJP.
So, while Raman clocks all those campaign miles, Kunjam is working the community leaders and is keeping a low profile. Probably, he has learnt something from his assembly defeat and has learnt his lessons. Even on Thursday, though he was very much in Jagdalpur, Kunjam did not step outside his hotel. He was closeted with leaders of various
communities trying to impress upon them the merits of backing the Communists. Asked when he will hit the campaign trail, "Let the CM leave town," he said. Later in the night? "No," he deadpanned. Tomorrow? "No," he repeated. An aide pounced in to enlighten: "His votes are in the forests and the villages. He comes to Jadgalpur only to meet the local
leaders and try and swing their support. In the town, it is the BJP that will be strong," he said.
War Wothra, a hotel owner in town, agrees. The BJP will be strong in the town. The CPI will put up a stiff fight in the villages and rural areas. But they won't be able to defeat the BJP. The main mistake of the BJP is renominating Kashyap. I pray to god he lives long. But the people - the youth especially - are very concerned about whether he will last a term.
They do not want a by-election. But they will vote BJP anyway. Is it all the CM's charisma and nothing else?
"Yes. There are no issues as such. The rice scheme killed all the opposition to the BJP," Rao said. But Kunjam is still hopeful. "I am raising issues like getting rail connectivity to the region and getting the highways project to the region. There are also a lot of other people-related issues. My biggest challenge is to convince the people that these are the things that they need," he concluded.