Until recently, Rakesh Sharma wanted parivartan (change) in Chhattisgarh’s Rajnandgaon but has now changed his mind. He feels he cannot switch his vote from the incumbent Raman Singh to a “complete outsider”, the Congress candidate Karuna Shukla, niece of late prime minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee.
“Why should I vote for someone I don’t know?” said Sharma, a small trader in the city.
Polling is just about a week away in this high-profile seat that the chief minister has represented three times — in 2008, 2013 and 2018. To ensure the CM’s victory, the BJP, which is looking for a fourth straight term, has dubbed the local election as one between a local and an outsider.
Singh hails from Kawardha district, which was in undivided Rajnandgaon and his son Abhishek Singh, who is managing the campaign for his father, is the sitting MP from Rajnandgaon. The campaign appears to have hit a note with some people in a city that sits on the edge of the Maoist-affected region in the state. “We have just heard about Karuna Shukla through media coverage. Most of my friends still don’t know her. Secondly, when we vote for Raman Singh we vote for the CM and this is a matter of pride for us,” said Jitendra Deva- ngan, a marketing executive.
Not everyone is convinced.
“Karuna Shukla is national figure and hails from Chhattisgarh. By this argument, many BJP candidates are outsiders in their constituency. This time it will be a close fight,” said Atul Yadav , a 24-year-old student.
“ We are in strong position in Rajnandgaon and we will win. Our candidate has got domain in all the communities in this seat ,” said Jarnail Singh Bhatia, president JCC Rajnandgaon. But what everyone seems to agree on is that it is an unusually high-pitched campaign. Shukla has repeatedly attacked Singh for doing “selfish politics” and criticised the CM for calling her his “sister”. “Raman Singh is MLA from Rajnandgaon but nowhere can development be seen. People of the city are suffering,” she said. Shukla also counters the “local vs outsider” campaign. “This is propaganda circulated by Raman Singh’s team. He knows that no tactics will work against me in this election.” The BJP has hit back with Abhishek saying that Shukla was resorting to personal attacks because she had no agenda to fight the BJP’s promise of development. “People of this constituency believe the CM has done significant work and is only fighting on the agenda of development.”
In 2013, Singh defeated the Congress candidate by 35,866 votes but post-poll analysis showed urban segments propelled his lead and that the Congress did much better in rural areas. Experts say to have a fighting chance, Shukla has to focus on the rural areas. “Shukla should concentrate on rural booths because the Congress can give a fight to Singh from there only,” said Jitendra Mishra, a political commentator.
Another factor this election could have been former chief minister Ajit Jogi’s Janata Congress Chhattisgarh (JCC). When he launched his new party, Jogi had said he would fight against the CM but has now nominated a local corporator who is not expected to put up much of a fight. Experts say Jogi’s candidature could have made a difference as his caste base of Mahars and Satnamis make up a major chunk of the voters.
Congress leaders say this shows Jogi is acting as a “B-team of the BJP. The BJP says most JCC workers joined the BJP, prompting the decision. “We are winning from huge margin and Jogi could have not any impact on election if he fought from here,” said Rajnandgaon BJP president Santosh Agarwal.
Atul Mudaliyar, a local Congress leader and deputy general secretary of the party’s Chhattisgarh unit, said, “This is only election in which all leaders of Rajnandgaon are united against Raman Singh. The booth level workers are now charged. We are winning the elections.”