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Chhattisgarh: Will the 'Raman effect' work?

Krishnakumar P in Raipur | November 13, 2008

After a two-minute speech at a small event organised by the leaders of the Yadav community, Dr Raman Singh is set to visit the next community. On the last day of campaigning in his Rajnandgaon constituency in Chhattisgarh, the chief minister has left the castes and communities canvassing for the end. He will now visit other communities and one meeting with Muslims.

Just as he is leaving the premises, a young lady rushes to him with a paper in her hand. She pushes the petition in the hands of the chief minister and gives him a gist of the problems. Raman Singh pays attention and then puts his hand on her head, assuring her all will be well.

The lady accompanies Singh to his car as he leaves. "I am a cook. I used to be involved in the mid-day meal scheme till a while ago, when suddenly the district administration fired all old timers and brought in new people. I asked him to reinstate the old people and keep us along with the new team," Meena Soni said.

"I used to get paid Rs 20 a day. The administration then ruled that we must be paid Rs 26 a day. But the contractors used to give us only Rs 20. Even the people in the new team are getting only Rs 25. I told 'Raman' about that also," she said.

Apart from a sought favour, she also has a vote to caste. Is she sure her petition will be answered if Raman Singh gets elected? "We'll see. I will vote for him in hope. If things don't happen, there is another election in five years time. He has done a good job. Earlier, he gave rice at Rs 3 a kilo. Now he has promised rice at Re 1. But I think he also knows what the prices of oil and daal are," Soni says.

After five years in power of an infant state, this is the kind of feeling that Raman Singh generates on people's mind. Almost everyone from elders to children say 'Raman' when talking about the chief minister, who turned 56 this October. (The party cadre addresses the Ayurvedic doctor as doctor-saab.) He is a good man, they say, but the same cannot be said about the people under him. Law and order has been good under him, they say, but the Maoist situation has deteriorated. He is not highhanded and is very clean, they say, but there has been so much corruption. He has eschewed dynastic politics, they say (his son, Abhishek, a mechanical engineer with an MBA, and his daughter, Asmita, a dental surgeon, have kept themselves away from the corridors of power and pursue professional careers) but that hasn't reduced the number of people abusing power.

People from all walks of life have something good to say, but at the same time are very quick to add a caveat.

But despite this, there are two good reasons why Raman Singh might well be the second BJP leader after Narendra Modi [Images] to buck anti-incumbency in recent times. The slashing of the rice price is one. In a state where it is already being doled out at Rs 3/kg, the Congress said it will make it Rs 2 if voted to power. The BJP went one up and made it Re 1.

The second reason is Ajit Jogi. The very mention of his name makes people list the atrocities and the injustices from his time at the helm.

Despite these two strong factors, Raman Singh is not resting easy.

Singh, who first became an MLA in 1990 contesting the Khawarda constituency, lost it in 1998. Stung by the loss, he switched to Rajnandgaon, where he went to school, and defeated Congress heavyweight Motilal Vohra. Though he became a minister in the Vajpayee government, he returned to the state after it was carved out of Madhya Pradesh [Images] and led the party to power. One of his legislators Pradeep Gandhi, of Operation Duryodhan fame, vacated the Dongragaon district and he contested the assembly election from there.

"He got the scare of his life. He had become the chief minister and had to win that seat to keep his chair. For the first four rounds (total 12 rounds) of counting he trailed the Congress candidate. In the end, he managed to win by a margin of a few thousand votes.

"He was not very confident about contesting from there again. Also Ajit Jogi had challenged to contest from Dongragaon if Raman stood there. He did not want to risk anything and chose his hometown and the place that sent him to the Lok Sabha for the first time," P C Hota, an independent journalist, said.

But a look at its 2003 sheet says even Rajnandgaon is a tricky seat. This constituency was a BJP bastion and the home of Singh's political mentor Leela Ram Bhojwani. Yet, in 2003, Bojhwani lost by 40 votes!

"Even when he chose this seat we were not guaranteed a win. It seemed to us like it will be a very close fight," a party insider said. "But then after the rice scheme, I was out campaigning with him door-to-door for a whole day, I was convinced that the people have made up their minds. In nine out of every 10 houses, we went to, the people came out to welcome him even before he reached their doorstep. Though there is no saying how many of those will translate into votes, for me, it was a sign that he has gained in popularity. Now we are estimating that he will win by more than 20,000 votes," a party insider said.

The only worry for Raman Singh's managers is that there are 15 independents in the fray  -- and it is a high number for a constituency of Rajnandgaon's size � and they may 'hurt his victory margin'.

Hota summed up: "His image and Ajit Jogi's negative image may help him sail through, but I think it will not be an entirely convincing mandate. He has always maintained good relations with the media. But Chhattisgarh needs more than a good man and his half-hearted development schemes to become a truly developed state."

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Text and photograph: Krishnakumar P in Raipur

Image: Kids sport masks of Chief Minister Raman Singh at the BJP office in Rajnandgaon.     

 

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