At the mid-point of the National Highway from Kolkata to Surat is Rajnandgaon, a western district of Chattisgarh, constituency of Raman Singh, the Chief Minister of Chattisgarh. Close to the entrance of Rajnandgaon, where the majority of people live in villages, there are about half a dozen giant saffron billboards of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) without Mr. Singh in any of them. Instead, they have Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Mr. Singh’s son, the local MP, in the foreground, and Atal Bihari Vajpayee at the rear, with two tiny photos of the BJP’s national and State presidents at the top corner.
“It was a terrible mistake,” a BJP sympathiser said.
The BJP wanted the Prime Minister to promote Mr. Singh on the billboard in Rajnandgaon, where the Vaishya, or trading caste, is powerful.
“The Vaishyas were badly hit by demonetisation and GST (Goods and Services Tax),” the sympathiser, also a trader, explained. “So, the photograph of Mr. Singh was soon brought back on the billboards and in newspapers, with his guru Vajpayee in the backdrop; the Prime Minister’s stayed, too,” he said. Small-time BJP officials in Rajnandagaon make no bones about insisting that the party is under some pressure in Rajnandgaon and Chattisgarh because of Mr. Modi.
“Raman Singh has done an excellent job as far as developing the State is concerned, but not Mr. Modi. If the BJP wins, the credit will go to Mr Singh. If it loses, everyone will blame Mr Modi,” a Sindhi trader said on condition of strict anonymity. Closer to the election, the BJP is depending more on Mr. Singh’s “development” agenda and the late Vajpayee’s moderate image.
Curiously, the Congress too is depending on Vajpayee in Rajnandgaon.
In one of the villages, Torankatta, the slogan of the Congress on Diwali afternoon was “Atalji ke yaad main, chaap lagegi Congress ke panje mein” (“In memory of Vajpayee, the vote will go to Congress.”)
The Congress candidate is former BJP MLA and ex-MP, Karuna Shukla, daughter of Vajpayee’s elder brother. She joined the Congress in 2014. Despite the fact that 33 Congress leaders sought nomination from her seat, she is confident of winning.
“They are all working together. Rahul Gandhi has managed to put an end to all factionalism in the State,” Ms. Shukla said.
“Impossible,” said Hemant Meshram, a BJP ticket-hopeful, who was denied one.
“The entire Congress has been purchased by the BJP. The Congress can fight with the BJP but not its own activists,” he said. Ms. Shukla acknowledges that the BJP has more money and, accordingly, advises listeners in Torankatta “to accept money, jewellery or liquor” but to vote for her, in memory of Atalji. The fight indeed is between the niece and the disciple of Mr. Vajpayee in Rajnandgaon.
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