Surguja: Infighting and anti-incumbency are key challenges for the Congress as it seeks to repeat its 2018 performance in the Surguja administrative division of Chhattisgarh in the ongoing assembly elections.
In 2018, the party had swept all 14 seats in the region for the first time since the formation of the state, which gave its tally a considerable boost as it went on to win 68 out of the total 90 seats and oust the BJP from power after 15 years.
But the rivalry between Chief Minister Bhupesh Baghel and Deputy CM T S Singh Deo, who hails from the region, could hurt the party's prospects, one analyst said.
The division consists of six districts: Jashpur, Korea, Surajpur, Surguja, Balrampur and the newly formed Manendragarh-Chirmiri-Bharatpur (MCB).
These six districts together have 14 seats — Kunkuri, Pathalgaon and Jashpur in Jashpur district; Ambikapur, Lundra and Sitapur in Surguja district; Pratappur, Ramanuganj and Samri in Balrampur; Premnagar and Bhatgoan in Surajpur; Baikunthpur in Korea, and Manendragarh and Bharatpur-Sohnat assembly seats in MCB district. All the seats will go to polls in the second phase of the elections, that is, on November 17.
Nine seats are reserved for Scheduled Tribes. Located in the northern part of the state, the Surguja belt is known for dense forests and significant mineral resources. It was once considered as Naxal-affected, but the menace was subsequently contained.
The region shares borders with Uttar Pradesh in the north, Madhya Pradesh in the west and Jharkhand in the east.
In 2008, the BJP won nine seats and Congress five. In 2013, the Congress and BJP bagged seven seats each. But in 2018, the ruling BJP faced a total washout.
Three ministers in the Bhupesh Baghel-led Congress government hailed from Surguja division — T S Singh Deo, Amarjit Bhagat and Premsai Singh Tekam. Tekam resigned from the cabinet in July this year.
“The Congress will certainly lead in the majority of the seats. I do not see the Congress getting fewer than 10-11 seats,” Singh Deo told PTI, acknowledging that the party could face some setbacks this time.
“Never has it been 14 out of 14 (for one party) except the last time. You don't score a triple century all the time,” he added.
The Congress did not give ticket to four sitting MLAs this time — Premsai Singh Tekam (Pratappur), Chintamani Maharaj (Samri), Brihaspat Singh (Ramanuganj) and Vinay Jaiswal (Manendragarh).
Singh Deo, a member of a royal family, wields considerable influence in the area. He is also a member of Congress' Central Election Committee and many disgruntled aspirants have blamed him for denying them tickets.
In 2021, Brihaspat Singh had rattled the party by alleging that Singh Deo could get him killed.
Singh Deo, however, said candidate selection was based on information gleaned from surveys.
“A lot of decisions were based on the inputs we received from the surveys. There were a large number of surveys, all conducted by professionals. I don't think any ticket (candidate) that has been changed was contrary to what the survey said,” he said.
He also conceded that there were some “personal issues” and Brihaspat Singh "stepped beyond a particular line of acceptance”.
“I can only assure you that if the survey had said he (Brihaspat Singh) was winning, I would not have stood in the way,” Singh Deo added.
Sudhir Pandey, a Surguja-based journalist, said both the BJP and Congress fielded fresh faces this time in a bid to bolster their prospects.
The BJP, notably, has fielded two sitting MPs — Union minister Renuka Singh (from Bharatpur Sohnat assembly seat) and Gomti Sai (Pathalgaon) — and former Union minister Vishnu Deo Sai (from Kukuri).
The saffron party has also given ticket to 33-year-old Ramkumar Toppo, who quit the Central Reserve Police Force (CRPF) to join politics earlier this year, against minister Amarjit Bhagat from Sitapur.
The Congress has nominated Ajay Tirkey, two-time mayor of Ambikapur, from Ramanujganj, a seat earlier represented by Brihaspat Singh.
“Last time the people in the region voted assuming that T S Singh Deo would be the next chief minister, and that was how campaigning was done here. But the dispute between Singh Deo and chief minister Baghel has not benefited the locals, which could hurt the Congress's prospects,” Pandey added.