If the size of the crowds were the only determinant in predicting election results then Chhattisgarh Chief Minister Raman Singh should be packing his backs and preparing to ride into the sunset.
Raman Singh's rally on Tuesday in Neora, 70 km north of state capital Raipur, was a rather sad affair with just over half the 5,000 seats filled; that too by party workers more than the public. In contrast, Ajit Jogi's rally 30km up the road on Monday had a large enthusiastic crowd of ordinary people. Congress president Rahul Gandhi also managed an attentive and participatory audience in nearby Baloda Bazaar. For a party that prides itself on mobilisation, public participation at the BJP rally seemed to show that its 15 years in power are wearing people down.
But people's enthusiasm for the election does not seem to have died down.
Long queues of voters started early Monday morning in Dongargarh constituency. What was really interesting was that women turned out in huge numbers. When asked whether they would vote on their own or as advised by their husbands or family, they were clear that they were making their own choice.
The queues at Dongargarh were repeated across most of the 18 constituencies that voted on Monday. The turnout matched the 2013 figures.
To translate turnout in any meaningful direction is hard but it seemed that 15-20% voters said they would be changing the party they voted last time. Many said they were tired of the old faces and wanted change.
The other interesting aspect of this election is the low-key participation of Prime Minister Narendra Modi. Normally PM Modi is the heavy artillery of the BJP, the man who single-handedly turned around anti-BJP sentiment in Gujarat and almost turned Karnataka into a BJP win. This time, he seems to be missing in action. His few rallies haven't drawn the same overflowing and adoring audience, which begs the question - is he not as popular here or has the BJP decided not to risk Modi's image with a defeat that could damage his teflon coat.
Chhattisgarh elections are always a close fight. The risk of defeat in a small state could damage the Prime Minister's image nationally. Something he would not want in an election year. In Chhattisgarh, a one per cent lead in votes for the BJP has been enough to give it a credible majority in the last three elections. With "Others and Independents" getting up to 20% of the votes, there is always the risk of defeat in many seats.
If one looks at seats from 2013, almost a third are vulnerable to a swing of up to 5%. That is a huge number. More importantly, the BJP has 9 seats (compared to 4 for the Congress) which could set off a movement of 2.5% of votes or less than 5,000 voters. Nine seats would be enough to reverse the 2013 result and bring the Congress to power.
Now added to the cauldron is former Chief Minister Ajit Jogi and his Janata Chhattisgarh Congress in alliance with Mayawati's BSP. The BSP has been around in Chhattisgarh for a long time - BSP founder Kanshi Ram ran for parliament from here - and yet has never garnered more 5% of the votes. Now with Jogi, a tribal with good political roots in the state, they are hoping to pull enough votes from both the traditional parties to win a good 10-15 seats and emerge kingmakers. Or, as one of their leaders said, be kings like HD Deve Gowda and his son Kumaraswamy in Karnataka.
Ajit Jogi's rallies indicate sizeable interest in this party and the workers showed much enthusiasm. They say only he has the organisational skills and the experience to run the state properly. As one shopkeeper said: "We made the mistake of ousting him in 2003 because he was doing things, but in an abrasive way. Now many feel that someone like him needs to galvanise the state government."
Poverty remains a big issue, and even though Raman Singh is right that per capita income has gone up from Rs 10,000 in 2003 to ₹ 91,000 now, most of the population is dependent on his food handout of 35 kg of rice for ₹1 a kg. Raman Singh has also brought 24-hour electricity, piped water (in many areas) and seemingly improved the infrastructure. The state certainly looks and feels much better developed than, say UP and Bihar. And as an independent state rather than a mere region of Madhya Pradesh, it has seen great improvement. But with estimates of poverty ranging from 49% to a more acceptable 22%, people seem to feel that the drive for improving things has slowed down and bureaucracy and corruption have stymied delivery of programmes.
A shopkeeper in village Dharsiva off the Raipur-Bilaspur highway points out that his photostat machine hums all the time, copying documents for villagers applying for schemes, but they don't seem to get anything. His neighbour wonders, what is the point of gas connections when one has to pay more than ₹ 1,000 for a cylinder while city folks get it subsidised.
Almost everywhere there are complaints of alcoholism and the government fostering a culture of drinking.
The Congress party has played on all these complaints. It has promised full support price and a bonus (on support price) within 10 days of winning the election and reports from Bastar say many farmers are holding off on bringing the recent rice crop to the market in this hope. But while the Congress seems to have hit all the key notes, it lacks leadership and organisation. This is where it may lose most with Jogi in the picture. It is also likely that Jogi will cut into the traditional caste vote-bank of the Congress.
Looking at the caste equation in Chhattisgarh and where parties draw their support, the general sense is that the alliance would probably cut into the Congress' support among Schedule Tribes and Scheduled Castes, who make up almost half the population of the state. But would the votes grabbed from the Congress translate into seats for the alliance or just into defeat for a large number of Congress candidates to give the BJP resounding victory? This is the Congress's worst nightmare and the BJP's dream scenario.
The rest of Chhattisgarh's 78 seats vote on November 20 and the expectation is of a high turnout. Then a long limbo to December 11, when the results are declared.
(Ishwari Bajpai is Senior Advisor at NDTV.)
Disclaimer: The opinions expressed within this article are the personal opinions of the author. The facts and opinions appearing in the article do not reflect the views of NDTV and NDTV does not assume any responsibility or liability for the same.
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