Chhattisgarh is one of the poorest states in India—best known as the battleground for the tribal insurgency. But the election here has been reduced to a battle over personalities—with law enforcement agencies playing a starring role.
Researched by: Nirmal Bhansali
First, some basic deets
Created in 2000, the state has only held four elections. The State Assembly has 90 seats—of which 29 are reserved for Scheduled Tribes and 10 for Scheduled Caste. There are no strong regional parties here. The BJP had an unbroken run in power from the first election in 2003—until the Congress swept it out of power in 2018.
The 2018 elections: The tribal belt is critical to any victory in Chhattisgarh. Twenty six of the 29 reserved seats are in two divisions: Bastar and Surguja. The Congress won all 26 in 2018. Tribal communities account for 32% of the state’s population—second to the Other Backward Castes—who represent 42%. Overall, the Congress won a whopping 68 seats out of 90—an astonishing victory given BJP Chief Minister Raman Singh’s personal popularity. As Mint noted at the time:
The BJP has been rejected by scheduled tribes, the scheduled castes, traders, small- and medium-scale businessmen, women, and youth, especially first-time voters… except for Raman Singh and Brijmohan Agrawal, all BJP ministers lost the elections.
Big point to note: The BJP lost Chattisgarh in 2018 as part of an anti-incumbency wave that swept across the Hindi belt. The BJP lost 48% of the seats it had won in 2013—while Congress gained a staggering 137% across Chhattisgarh, Madhya Pradesh and Rajasthan. Contrary to popular belief, the BJP remains vulnerable in its Hindi stronghold—outside of Uttar Pradesh.
But, but, but: PM Modi’s popularity ensured a BJP triumph in the Lok Sabha elections in 2019. The party grabbed nine out of 11 seats. In other words, the BJP’s hold over the Hindi belt in national elections is really about Modi’s enduring appeal. And that explains its strategy in this election.
BJP strategy #1: All bets on Modi
In the 2018 election, Chief Minister Raman Singh put his popularity on the line—”who very bravely based the campaign this time not on the charisma of Modi but his own leadership as well as the legacy of Vajpayee.” Although he is one of the few BJP leaders who retained his seat, Singh is totally AWOL in this election.
The Modi card: The BJP has not declared any chief ministerial candidate this time—which is unprecedented in the state—opting for what it calls a ‘collective strategy’. It has brought in all its star campaigners—from Amit Shah to Yogi Adityanath—and of course, Modi. The PM’s popularity among OBCs is seen as key to unlocking this election—and others in the Hindi belt.
All the Modi yojanas: There is a very good reason why most union government schemes are named after the Prime Minister. And his message is centred on the many welfare programs—each targeted at a different constituency. Example: One big reason the BJP lost most of the Hindi belt in 2018 was rural distress. Modi’s biggest announcement this weekend was the extension of a government scheme to provide free food grains to over 800 million poor people for the next five years. As for the OBCs, they’ve been given the Vishwakarma Yojana—which is a welfare programme for artisans and craftsmen:
The BJP has ensured political empowerment of the OBCs, giving them space in the organisational structure and the government. Similarly, SC and STs have been empowered by giving them avenues for education through scholarships, interest-free loans and opportunities to earn.
Point to note: This is the BJP’s strategy in all the Hindi belt states—including Rajasthan and Madhya Pradesh. So its performance is a critical test for the party—ahead of the Lok Sabha elections.
The Hindutva card: Of course, the Prime Minister has also been the most persuasive advocate for the Hindu right worldview. It built its political base in Chhattisgarh on the back of a powerful RSS’ network of charitable organisations. It’s been a recurring theme in this election as well:
[T]he BJP has accused the Congress of stalling the implementation of an anti-conversion law. The BJP and its ideological wing Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) have alleged mass religious conversions of tribals. The RSS has also demanded that those who change their religion to embrace Christianity or Islam should not be allowed to receive the associated benefits in education or government jobs.
But, but, but: Religion-based attacks may not work as well against Congress CM Bhupesh Baghel—since he has long mastered the ‘soft Hindutva’ strategy. He’s renovated his share of temples—and made the required references to Ram—claiming his mother Kaushalya was a princess from Kosala—which is in present-day Chhattisgarh:
Besides this, the Baghel government has launched various programmes like the promotion of the Ram Van Gaman Path, allocating over Rs 162 crore for the tourism circuit centred on Ramayana mythology. A few months ago, Baghel announced ‘Bajrangbali Akhada Protsahan Yojna’ to promote traditional wrestling centres in the state.
That’s not counting all sorts of other schemes like Krishna Kunj and hosting international Ramayana Mahotsav.
Point to note: Baghel’s unashamed Hindutva pitch earned him the ire of his own father: “I’ve always criticised my son for endorsing an ideology which is worse than nuclear weapons.” And he’s been accused of ignoring Muslims and Christians—while creating welfare schemes for the poor and adivasis.
Also this: Congress leader Kamal Nath has embraced the exact same appeals to Hinduism in Madhya Pradesh. If both succeed, it bodes ill for Congress’ electoral strategy moving forward.
BJP strategy #2: Betting against Baghel
After the fall of Raman Singh, the state BJP unit has been on ‘snooze’ mode. The state campaign is being orchestrated entirely by Delhi—deploying two brahmastras: Modi and the Enforcement Directorate. The latter has been aimed squarely at CM Bhupesh Baghel.
The popular Chief Minister: Apart from his Hindutva touch, Baghel has made agricultural subsidies the centrepiece of his campaign. Congress won the 2018 election by promising a “karza maafi” (loan waiver), Baghel has now promised another for farmers—many of whom are OBCs:
“Our MLAs here (belonging to the Congress) are not accessible… but we will vote for the Congress because of Baghel.” A sociology student, whose ambition is to become a patwari, adds: “Baghel has put money into the hands of farmers, including the landless.”
Another effective pitch: Regional pride—i.e Chhattisgarhiat. He has “mounted ‘Chhattisgarhi Olympics’, and declared holidays on local festivals like Pola ka tyohar, Gedi festival and Hareli tyohar.”
Enter, the Mahadev app: It all starts with a 2022 police investigation into an illegal betting app called Mahadev. The Chhattisgarh police arrested a number of people—and eventually discovered that the gambling franchise was being run by two men—Saurabh Chandrakar and Ravi Uppal—based in Dubai—where betting is legal. The operation extended way beyond the state:
The Chhattisgarh police claimed that transactions worth Rs 50 billion (5,000 crores) were estimated to have been carried out in a single year, in 2022, through the app across the country. The interrogation of the arrested revealed that the Mahadev app was run from more than 30 centres, mostly in Chhattisgarh, and transactions worth over Rs 2 billion (200 crores) were carried from each of these centres.
Hence, the Enforcement Directorate got involved. Soon after, there was an unexpected plot twist.
Fingers point at Baghel: The ED claimed that one of the men arrested had confessed to a “cash courier sent from UAE especially, to deliver large amounts of cash for electioneering expenses of the ruling Congress party.” This guy was apparently sent by a senior exec at Mahadev—Shubham Soni. This guy then recorded a video making even more sensational accusations about Baghel. Soni claims to have given Rs 50.8 billion (508 crore) to the CM for help in the investigation—and made this dramatic appeal:
Despite giving money, my work is not getting done. I don't understand what to do with this system. ED has started action against me. My last request to our Indian government is to help me. I am trapped in this political system. I want to get out of it. I have evidence regarding the money I have given. Please help me. I want to go back to India. I am scared.
Timing to note: All this happened just four days before the first phase of polling opened in the state this Monday.
Will it work? As of now, all surveys point to an easy Congress win. But the betting scandal remains a wildcard.
The bottomline: Like Mizoram, Chhattisgarh is a small state—and may not occupy much space in the national consciousness. But it is a critical test of the BJP’s strength in the Hindi belt going into the national elections. Rasheed Kidwai compares them to a “semi final”—that will “indicate voters’ preference in the Hindi heartland states.” That may not be true since state election results don’t always reflect what happens in a Lok Sabha poll. But these outcomes will shape mood and momentum:
Success would send a strong signal ahead of the general election that Modi's party remains the favourite of the majority of voters. On the other hand, victories for Congress would boost morale and help change the narrative of a party struggling to recapture past glory.
Nikkei Asia and Frontline have good reads on the state elections–especially in the HIndi belt–and why they matter. Hindustan Times and The Federal are best on the scam—while Economic Times looks at the political fallout. Indian Express explains why the Chhattisgarh election is all about Baghel. The Hindu looks at the vote in the volatile region of Bastar. NewsClick has the poll predictions. This interesting (but older) Business Standard piece explains how the BJP built its base in the state.