In its bid to wrest back Chhattisgarh from Raman Singh who has been in power since 2003, the Congress is focusing on Bastar and Surguja, the tribal regions that send 26 MLAs to the Assembly.
Party president Rahul Gandhi has deputed AICC secretary and former IPS officer from Jharkhand, Arun Oraon, as the members of the screening committee along with three-time Congress MLA from Gujarat, Ashwin Kotwal, to find and identify the best candidates who can defeat the BJP in this region from where it won 11 out of 26 seats. Both are perceived to be honest men who are not easily influenced by extraneous factors.
“This region, especially the seat of Jagdalpur, which is at the heart of Bastar, sets the tone for the rest of the state. In the last election, the Congress did better than the BJP here and in the process, it almost won the election. This time, a lot will depend on the correct ticket distribution because there is a lot of anti-incumbency among the voters. If the Congress is able to give tickets to clean and non-controversial individuals, the BJP will find it very difficult to win at least in this region,” a journalist based in Jagdalpur claimed.
Even Chief Minister Raman Singh, according to BJP sources, was aware of the negative image that his MLAs, especially in this region, had accumulated, and hence, he was likely to change at least 40% of the MLAs who had won in 2013.
“The BJP has been winning in Jagdalpur since 2008, but its vote share has been decreasing constantly. The win or loss in Jagdalpur will be decided by candidate selection. Out of 42 Congress candidates who have filled the forms for seats there, some have a very ‘colourful’ background. One of them, Malkit Singh Gaidu, who is being supported by the state Congress president Bhupesh Baghel, has been booked under National Security Act (NSA) and was on the run for more than six months after being involved in a shoot-out incident. He later got bail from the Supreme Court. Then there is T.V. Ravi who is also being pushed by the leaders who are in Raipur and he is likely to be the ‘parachute candidate’,” a Raipur-based Congress party functionary said. In the last week of August, when Oran and Kotwal were meeting the party workers in Jagdalpur, they had to face a lot of anger over the news that Ravi was getting the ticket. “Ravi had joined the BJP after leaving Congress and then came back because of his closeness to Bhupesh Baghel. Due to this, the local party workers do not trust him. The tribals of this region are not supporting him as he has been accused of ‘getting’ tribal lands ‘wrongly’ and getting uber rich. The tribal population is very angry with him,” the journalist added.
Another individual, who is seeking ticket from Jagdalpur, is Shamu Kashyap. He had contested the last elections, but lost. Kashyap was “discovered” in 2008 by the then Congress general secretary Rahul Gandhi after he visited Kashyap’s village and asked the tribals to point to those who studied beyond Class 10. They pointed towards Kashyap, a Mahara by caste and a neo-Christian, who had studied till Class 12. Some days later, Rahul Gandhi asked him to contest the Jagdalpur election against the sitting BJP MLA Santosh Bafna, a prominent jeweller from the Jain community. Bafna is seen close to senior BJP leader and minister Brijmohan Agarwal who leads the anti-Raman Singh camp in the state.
“The problem with Kashyap is that he did not remain active in the region after the elections and lost whatever good will he had generated. He did not stay in touch with the voters. People of this area are very simple and they remember these things. Congress needs to keep these things in mind,” the party functionary said.
Bastar has 12 seats and all are reserved for the STs save Jagdalpur. The BJP presently has four MLAs, including from Jagdalpur, while the Congress has eight.