Chhattisgarh polls: How Rajnandgaon seat is key to Raman Singh’s political legacy
It was in the Lok Sabha seat where Raman Singh first made his mark, beating Congress veteran Motilal Vora in 1998 and becoming a minister in the then Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee-led cabinet
Just on the outskirts of Chhattisgarh’s Rajnandgaon town, 28-year-old Yogesh Sahu serves tea to his customers at a small roadside shack, surrounded by political conversation. Rajnandgaon will go to polls in the first phase of the assembly elections due on November 7.
This is also, after all, the seat of former chief minister Raman Singh, who ruled Chhattisgarh for fifteen years between 2003 and 2008 and contesting again this time. Yet, this time, Sahu says there is something different in the air.
“It seems like the entire Congress leadership is in the city and that Congress chief minister Bhupesh Baghel himself is fighting against Raman Singh,” he says.
20 of the 90 seats in Chhattisgarh will go to the polls in the first phase on November 7, with results to be declared on December 3. While 12 of these seats are in left-wing extremism hit Bastar, eight others are in four districts in and around Rajnandgaon that historically have had the shadow of Raman Singh.
Rajnandgaon, the biggest town in the region and the district headquarters, has had a Raman Singh connection for the last 25 years.
It was in the Lok Sabha seat where Singh first made his mark, beating Congress veteran Motilal Vora in 1998 and becoming a minister in the then Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee-led cabinet. Singh first fought the assembly polls from Rajnandgaon in 2008 and again in 2018, beating Congress’s Karuna Shukla with a margin of just short of 17,000 votes.
This time, Singh is up against Congress candidate Girish Dewangan, president of the state mineral development corporation and general secretary of Chhattisgarh Congress.
Dewangan, who is also an OBC, is known to be close to CM Baghel. “It is new that the Congress is aggressively pushing its election in Rajnandgaon. The party is united in wanting to upset Raman Sing, and the party is keeping a close eye here. Raman Singh was not active for the past four and a half years, and in the urban slums, the Congress has been able to build a base,” a senior Congress leader said.
The Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), on the other hand, said that while it is clear the Congress wants to confine Singh to the constituency, Dewangan is from Dharsiwa in Raipur, is an outsider and will ultimately fall short.
“In the last election, Karuna Shukla brought down Raman Singh’s winning margin considerably, and it is the same strategy this time. But rural pockets may see some Congress influence, but we command a big lead in urban and semi-urban areas,” a BJP leader said.
Overall, of the eight seats, the Congress currently holds seven and the BJP one. Leaders said that other than Singh’s influence, other factors will dominate the election, ranging from local dissatisfaction, farmer issues and ticket distribution.
In the Khujji seat, for instance, one of the four seats in Rajnandgaon district, the Congress dropped sitting candidate Channi Sahu, considered close to state deputy chief minister TS Singhdeo.
The BJP has fielded Gita Sahu, the party district president, an OBC, while the Congress has fielded Bholaram Sahu, also recently promoted to district president, and considered close to CM Baghel. Queering the pitch is the Hamar Raj Party, the political wing of the tribal Sarv Adivasi Samaj, in a seat that has a considerable tribal population. “The thing that is working in favour of the Congress is a sizeable farmer population that is thus far with the Congress, but it is a close fight,” a Congress leader said.
A local BJP leader however said that Lalita Paikra, the tribal candidate from Hamar Raj Party would work in their favour. “She is a Kanwar tribal and could cut into the Congress votes, which is why we feel the BJP has the edge in this seat,” a BJP leader said.
In the Khairagarh seat, the BJP has fielded Raman Singh’s nephew, Vikrant Singh against sitting MLA Yashoda Verma and in Pandariya.
The Congress, in an acknowledgement of anti-incumbency against its sitting MLA, has also switched the candidate to Neelkhant Chandravanshi. “The difficulty of the BJP is that in all three seats of Kawardha, Pandariya and Khairagarh, its candidates are upper caste while the majority of voters are OBC,” said a Raipur-based BJP leader.
But the other crucial seat that is a dipstick for the communal temperature in Chhattisgarh is Kawardha, where Congress minister Mohammad Akbar is seeking re-election, and faces Vijay Sharma of the BJP, a former Bajrang Dal leader.
In October 2021, communal violence roiled the district for which more than 80 people were booked. Among those accused were Abhishek Singh, Raman Singh’s son and former MP and Vijay Sharma. In 2018, Akbar had won by a margin of 59,284 votes. “Akbar’s vote margin will decrease but he still has an edge because he has been available for the people of his constituency,” a Congress leader said.
The BJP thus far has not announced a CM candidate for Chhattisgarh, choosing instead to contest with Prime Minister Narendra Modi front and centre.
Asked if the state unit was working under him, in an interview with the HT last week, Raman Singh said, whether it was 2003, 2008 or 2018, the BJP never projected him as the chief minister.
But it is clear that whether or not he would be the state’s chief minister for the fourth time, Singh’s relevance is inextricably linked to the BJP’s performance in Rajnandgaon.
“There is no doubt that Raman Singh is presently the tallest leader of Chhattisgarh and contests from the Rajnandgaon seat. Before 2018, he had an impact on almost all the neighbouring seats but after that, he lost some ground in the nearby seats. His inactivity on the ground in the last five years is one of the reasons. It is a fact that at some seats he has considerable impact but the result in these eight seats may reflect his stature in the party and among the people,” said Harsh Dubey, a political commentator based in Chhattisgarh.