Raipur (Chhattisgarh): The record turnout in the 18 seats that went to polls on 12 November in the first phase of assembly elections in Chhattisgarh has left the main rivals Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and Congress baffled. The 18 seats that went to polls on 12 November saw a turnout of 76.28%, up from 75.93% in 2013.
Record turnout in the ‘Red’ zone has BJP, Congress on the edge
The seats, including five of the 12 seats in the Bastar region, recorded a high turnout of 76.28%, up from 75.93% in 2013 despite a boycott call by Maoists, fuelling claims and counterclaims by the BJP and the Congress. Chief minister Raman Singh, whose seat, Rajnandgaon, went to polls, said the turnout proved the victory of the ballot and development over bullet and exploitation. Singh also claimed that the BJP’s internal reports suggested the party was winning 14 to 15 seats in the first phase. In 2013, the BJP won only 6 of the 18 seats with the Congress bagging the remaining 12.
Soon after Singh’s claim, Congress chief spokesperson Randeep Surjewala said the Congress would win 15 seats and that Singh was on course to losing Rajnandgaon.
The outcome of elections to these seats will determine if the BJP has managed to win back tribal support as 12 of the 18 seats are reserved for Scheduled Tribe (ST) candidates. The BJP won only three of them in 2013.
The turnout signified endorsement of the government’s development agenda, especially tribal-welfare schemes, said Chhattisgarh BJP spokesperson Gauri Shankar. “There is an increase in the voter turnout in some of the Maoism-affected seats, which means people there have bought into the vikas narrative and agenda,” he said.
The BJP leader recalled how Prime Minister Narendra Modi began his campaign in Chhattisgarh at Jagdalpur by attacking the Congress for being “sympathetic” to “Urban Naxals”. “We believe Modiji’s appeal to the tribals has worked and the Congress has lost much of its support and goodwill among the tribals,” he said.
The Congress countered this, saying that the high turnout is a “clear sign” that tribals and non-tribals both continue to be unhappy with BJP rule. A state Congress leader, who did not want to be named, said the high turnout has made the BJP nervous.
“If the BJP had worked for tribals, why did Modiji have to resort to personal attacks against Soniaji and Rahulji in Bastar? Why did he not talk about development?” the Congress leader asked. Most of the welfare schemes the BJP talks about were started in 2018 and very few benefits would have actually reached the tribals, he said.
Among the major tribal welfare schemes initiated since 2013, the BJP lists the “highest” number of claims settled under the Forest Rights Act, an increase in the payout for tendu leaf collectors from ₹450 per sack to ₹2,500 along with a bonus of ₹4,000 crore, and distribution of free footwear among 1.3 million tendu leaf labourers.
The BJP is also enthused by the electoral history of this region. In 2013, when the turnout was 75.93%, the BJP won only 6 of 18 seats. However, in 2008 when the turnout was 67.14%, it had won 15 seats and the Congress was left with only 3.