Tribals, the most dominant social group in Chhattisgarh, fondly call him ‘Chaur Wale Baba’, or The Rice Man. His rice scheme for the poor, efficient public distribution system (PDS) and relatively clean and developmental image has brought him to power in 2003 and 2008 in this young state formed by splitting Madhya Pradesh in 2000. But it is still the heart of Maoist insurgency and there is resentment against some of his MLAs.
HT speaks to chief minister Raman Singh, CM of a state that is going to polls next Monday:
Your rice scheme is now being countered by the Congress. With the UPA’s food security and other schemes kicking in, will you lose out in this competitive populism?
Our scheme is different from Food Security. We give 35 kg rice and well as free salt and gram and pulses. Also, it is not just about free rice but implementation and transparency. Our scheme covers 42 million families now. For 60 years, Congress has been saying ‘garibi hatao’. But with this kind of price rise, they have kicked the poor, not poverty.
How did you fix the PDS system?
We had to plug leakages. Maximum mischief happened during transportation. Rice meant for the poor went straight to the private rice mills. We built godowns in the panchayats. Now, villagers can closely monitor whether rice is being stolen. We have fixed responsibility on the collector. He or she has to register complaints.
battling the maoists
The threat of Maoism still looms. Why did you fail to contain it?
Number of incidents has come down, so have the casualties. They now go for high-visibility strikes. It is a long battle. We are winning it.
Is there a Maoist threat to this election?
The threat is very high and very real. But we have deployed enough security personnel on the ground.
There are allegations of corruption in road building in the tribal areas, often by your state officials.
Contractors often stop road work after receiving initial payments, falsely citing a Maoist threat or violence. Once a contractor is blacklisted, he or she can’t get a bid.
Will Ajit Jogi’s reemergence in Chhattisgarh politics mean a shift of votes from the BJP?
Our vote share will sharply increase, mainly among woman and youth. And Jogi has been involved in the elections. Last time his wife and he fought the polls. This time his son is contesting.
Jogi, Charandas Mahant or Ravindra Choubey won’t make any difference. Elections are not won only by building infrastructure, roads. A party is voted to power based on trust and faith.
You have brought in new faces. Will MLAs who have not got tickets play spoiler?
They should be allowed to vent their anger. There has to be a cooling time. A leader has to listen to them calmly, attentively, say sorry if one has to. New faces work. They often negate the effects of anti-incumbency or disenchantment in a local seat.
Will Narendra Modi campaigning in Chhattisgarh make a difference?
It will make a big difference among the youth, both in the state and Lok Sabha elections.
You’re seen as a moderate face of the BJP. Will Modi’s campaigning here mar that image?
We requested him to campaign here. The Lok Sabha polls will be a straight comparison between Modi and Rahul Gandhi.
It is evident to all — including those who are not literate — that Rahul is just no match for Modi. Even when I campaign in remote tribal areas like Dantewada, Bijapur and Konta, I ask the crowd, “Do you have a name in mind as our next PM?” Every one in the 8,000 or 10,000-strong crowd respond in a roar: “NaMo, NaMo.”