The Congress has not won consecutive elections in the same state in over two decades; the last time it successfully defended a government was Madhya Pradesh in 1993 and 1998, when Digvijaya Singh was Chief Minister and it decimated the BJP – winning 174 and 172 of 230 seats.
That unwelcome streak could end today with victory in Chhattisgarh, where exit polls have given Chief Minister Bhupesh Baghel’s Congress government a distinct edge over the BJP.
Four exit polls expect the party to cross the majority mark of 46 (the Chhattisgarh Assembly has 90 seats) on its own, two more predict 42-44 and the remaining three give it more than 40 each.
Only two of nine exit polls give the BJP the haul of 46+ seats it needs to win the state.
The Congress’ score, when the dust settles, may not be as impressive as the 68 in 2018 but, if the party does retain Chhattisgarh, it will be a major boost ahead of next year’s general election.
And if Mr Baghel is sworn in for a second term, it will be despite a last-minute controversy – corruption allegations four days before polling – threatened to derail the Congress’ campaign.
The allegations surfaced after the Enforcement Directorate, which the opposition claims is used by the BJP to target rivals before elections, arrested a ‘hawala’ courier with Rs 5 crore. The courier named Mr Baghel as one of those receiving kickbacks from an illegal online gaming app.
A week after the second and final phase of polling the courier retracted the allegation.
Away from the corruption allegation, the Congress’ re-election campaign was built on a pro-poor and pro-farmer platform, including Mr Baghel’s price support guarantee for rice, a scheme to purchase cow dung for Rs 2 per kg, and the promise of loan waivers.
Mr Baghel courted OBC voters – they account for over 40 per cent of the state population – to plot the rebirth of the Congress in 2018, after the 2013 Maoist attack wiped out its state leadership.
For the 2023 election, the canny Chief Minister changed tacks, claiming improvements in infrastructure development and education, and increased support for farmers, who constitue, by some estimates, a massive 90 per cent of Chhattisgarh’s population.
And the early signs are promising for the Congress; a NDTV pre-poll survey in October indicated 39 per cent of the electorate would be happy with Mr Baghel to continue as Chief Minister. The closest BJP face was three-time former Chief Minister Raman Singh – a good 15 per cent behind.
Nearly 80 per cent were at least ‘somewhat satisfied’ with the Congress and, on governance, Mr Baghel scored big – 56 per cent, 64 per cent, and 53 per cent said the conditions of roads, and supply of electricity and drinking water had improved on his watch.
Crucially, the BJP has also been outmaneuvered on the subject of religion – widely seen as its go-to poll platform – with the Mr Baghel’s government piggybacking on the Ram Temple issue.
Will this be enough to hold back a BJP that won three consecutive elections between 2003 and 2018? We’ll know by this evening, possibly sooner.