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Two OBCs, a Sahu and a Kurmi, likely to be faces of Chhattisgarh Congress campaign

Bupesh Bhagel, a Kurmi, and Tamradhwaj Sahu will be among the prominent faces for the party’s election campaign, Congress leaders familiar with the strategy said.

chhattisgarh elections 2018 Updated: Aug 12, 2018 08:28 IST
Ritesh Mishra
Ritesh Mishra
Hindustan Times, Raipur
Chhattisgarh Congress campaign,Chhattisgarh Congress campaign faces,OBC
Congress president Rahul Gandhi at the unveiling of the newly constructed Rajiv Gandhi Bhawan in Raipur, Chhattisgarh on August 10, 2018. (PTI Photo )

The Congress will project more than one probable chief minister in Chhattisgarh ahead of the assembly polls in the state due later this year, party leaders familiar with the strategy said. This is being done to woo the state’s powerful other backward classes (OBCs). Kurmis and Sahus are two dominant communities among OBCs, and account for around 36% of the state’s population.

Bupesh Bhagel, a Kurmi, and Tamradhwaj Sahu will be among the prominent faces for the party’s election campaign, the leaders said. Sahu is a member of Congress Working Committee (CWC), the party’s highest decision-making body, while Bhagel is the party’s state chief.

The leaders said the Congress first made Tamradhwaj Sahu head of the party’s national OBC cell and then nominated him to the CWC as it sensed a chance to win back the Sahu community. “By elevating the Sahu leader to the CWC, we are giving a signal, that he could be the next chief minister,” said a Congress leader who did not wish to be named. He said Baghel is the other probable candidate. He said his Kurmi community accounts for the state’s 20% population. “Our strategy is to strike a balance between the two dominant OBC communities…,” he said. He added other prominent caste leaders like opposition leader T S Singhdeo, too, will find a place in the campaign strategy. Singhdeo, a Thakur like the state’s current chief minister, the Bharatiya Janata Party’s Raman Singh, was until recently considered a front-runner among potential Congress candidates for the top post .

The Congress has mainly banked on tribal and Dalit votes (42%) in the state. Kurmis and Sahus had shifted their allegiance to the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party as they felt sidelined during former Congress chief minister Ajit Jogi’s tenure over a decade back. Jogi, a tribal, left the Congress in 2015 to float his Chhattisgarh Janata Congress.

Kurmis and Sahus are mainly farmers and traders. Sahus account for about 16% of the state’s population. As many as 18 of the 90 seats have about 40% Sahu voters.

Getting Sahu votes is crucial for the Congress. There was less than one percentage point (0.75%) difference between the Congress and the BJP’s vote shares in the last assembly election in 2013.

“Most of the Sahus vote for the BJP because they are basically small traders (the party’s traditional voter base),” said Congress’s national OBC cell coordinator Sandeep Sahu.

He claimed the community has “decided to vote” for the Congress as the BJP did nothing for them when demonetisation of high-value currency notes in 2016 and introduction of the Goods and Services Tax hit them hard. Sandeep Sahu claimed the community feels the BJP has not given them proper representation in the state government and the party.

BJP spokesman Sacchinand Upasane contested the claims saying the party’s vice president Motilal Sah and a minister Ramshila Sahu in the Chhattisgarh cabinet are from the community. “Instead of questioning us, the Congress should settle its internal party disputes first,” he said.

Upasane insisted Sahus will not desert the BJP as the state government “has done a lot for them” . He added that there is ideological alignment between the Sahus and the BJP.

Political analyst Ashok Tomar says Tamradhwaj Sahu’s promotion is a good move. He added there is a strong feeling in the community that Tamradhwaj could be the chief minister if the Congress comes to power. “If the Congress manages to win 5% of the Sahu vote, it can be in power in the state.”

Chhattisgarh Sahu Samaj president Vipin Sahu called the promotion “a good thing” for his community. “I believe the Congress will do well this time and manage to dent the BJP vote bank.”

Vinod Verma, the Congress’s chief strategist in Chhattisgarh, said the Sahu community is the only one, other than tribals, which votes in large numbers for the party. “Congress has been giving them political space and if the party comes to power Sahus will get their due. We feel Sahus will vote for us.”

First Published: Aug 12, 2018 08:24 IST