RAIPUR, Chhattisgarh: Three stray dogs are the only living creatures at the Congress's locked head-office in Bilaspur city in Chhattisgarh on Friday afternoon, barely four days before notifications for the first phase of assembly elections were to be issued. The party's newly-built state headquarters in Raipur is frequented only by a few spokespersons and office-bearers.
The first phase of elections in Chhattisgarh is barely a month away, on 12 November, and the second phase, for 72 seats, will be held a few days after that.
Empty offices are not the only marker of the Congress's sorry state in Chhattisgarh, where the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) government is battling strong anti-incumbency sentiment after a 15-year-long rule. The Congress has not declared candidates for even one out of the 90 assembly seats in the state. There is no word yet on the party's star campaigners and their campaign schedule despite Congress president Rahul Gandhi declaring during his tour of the state in May this year that 90% of tickets would be announced by 15 August.
Forget about winning or losing elections, we are not even sure if we are going to fight this election seriously now
Almost all the senior Congress leaders from the state, including state Congress chief Bhupesh Baghel and the leader of opposition in Chhattisgarh assembly TS Singh Deo were camping in Delhi until late Friday night, reportedly to discuss the distribution of tickets with the party's central leadership.
"Forget about winning or losing elections, we are not even sure if we are going to fight this election seriously now. Every single day's delay in declaring the candidates is taking this election away from us. This is really sad because we had been working hard for last two years and stood a very good chance of securing a comfortable government here," a Congress leader, who is hoping for a seat, told HuffPost India on condition of anonymity.
Not enough time to campaign
Many aspiring candidates from Chhattisgarh and leaders associated with the Congress's state unit told this reporter that less than a month of campaign won't be enough to reach out to all the voters in every constituency.
"There are festivals like Diwali and Dussehra just before elections and we will also need a couple of days for filing nominations. They haven't yet declared a single ticket. Apart from a select few seats, where prominent leaders are likely to contest, most seats have more than one aspirant. But with uncertainty over the ticket allocation, nobody is willing to start a full-fledged campaign," another aspiring candidate said, also on condition of anonymity.
When asked about the delay in declaring tickets, Chhattisgarh Congress spokesperson Shailesh Nitin Trivedi said, "There are 30 seats where there is certainty over the candidates. The candidates are more or less declared there. We are ready with our poll machinery on all 90 seats of the state."
The Congress faced one more setback on Saturday morning when its Chhattisgarh unit's executive president Ram Dayal Uike quit the party to join the BJP, pointing at "a mess in the state Congress".
PL Punia, the Congress's general secretary in charge of Chhattisgarh, announced in New Delhi late on Friday evening that candidates for 17 out of 18 seats going to polls on 12 November have been decided but that the party preferred not to declare the names.
With the arrival of Rahul Gandhi, a hope had kindled that fresh blood would be infused in the party this election but that hope stands faded now
Another Congress leader from Chhattisgarh claimed that the BJP not declaring its candidate list and a possibility of rebellion in the party contributed to the delay in the declaration of candidates. However, he conceded that candidates would get very little time to campaign.
"We were presented with a great opportunity to displace this government this time but we gave it up in the last couple of weeks. It looks like the race to become CM, amongst the senior leaders, has cost us another election. Every senior leader is thinking only about his own chief ministership. With the arrival of Rahul Gandhi, a hope had kindled that fresh blood would be infused in the party this election but that hope stands faded now," rued a Congress leader from north Chhattisgarh.
This person said that senior leaders in the state seemed to be scared of developing a second rung of leaders.
"These are modern elections now, which are fought with micromanagement. You can't afford to make silly mistakes in a state where the margin of vote share between the ruling party and us is less than 1%," he added.
In 2013, the ruling BJP was ahead of the Congress by only 97,574 votes. But this time, the state is witnessing a three-cornered contest—former chief minister Ajit Jogi's Janta Congress Chhattisgarh and the Bahujan Samaj Party have announced an alliance.
Paying for distractions
After being appointed the general secretary in charge of Chhattisgarh last year, Punia had travelled extensively in the state and created a sense of enthusiasm. Until recently, the party was conducting worker training programmes and appeared an organised lot, ready to displace a three-term BJP government.
But now, local leaders are blaming controversies surrounding state Congress chief Baghel for distracting from the campaign.
Baghel spent some days in jail last month over a sex CD scandal which had rocked the state last year and resulted in the arrest of senior journalist Vinod Verma, thought to be close to Baghel. The CD allegedly featured a minister in the Chhattisgarh government.
Spokesperson Trivedi, however, claimed that Baghel is being targeted because he exposed the Raman Singh government's corruption.
"Everyone in the state understands this," he added.
Punia did not respond to multiple calls and messages from HuffPost India.
Another senior leader cited "lack of resources" compared with the ruling BJP as a reason for the delay in the declaration of candidates.
Vikas Upadhyay, former Congress chief of Raipur district, who is already campaigning from the West Raipur assembly constituency, doesn't think that the delay in declaring candidates will affect the party's chances.
"We have our machinery ready at booth level. Our workers are better-trained this time. You prepare for an election in five years, not in 15 days. We are much better placed this time," Upadhyay told HuffPost India.
However, Congress sources pointed out that Upadhyay also bore the brunt of late candidate declaration last time, which left him with only 12 days to campaign and resulted in him being narrowly defeated by a BJP minister considered close to the CM.
"You can't afford to leave loose ends in such a closely contested state," rued another Congressman from Bilaspur.
A leader from Bastar pointed out that while Congress president Gandhi had been visiting Rajasthan, where polls are still almost two months away, there is no word on his visit to Chhattisgarh.
We will win only if people consolidate behind us and decide to overthrow the BJP. But if we lose, we will have only ourselves to blame for it
"Basically, we have left this election on the people now. We will win only if people consolidate behind us and decide to overthrow the BJP. But if we lose, we will have only ourselves to blame for it. This is depressing because we stood a very good chance of winning comfortably here until two weeks ago but now we are not visible on the ground," a visibly crestfallen Congress leader from North Chhattisgarh told this reporter.
When asked about the Congress losing momentum at a crucial time in the state, Chandan Yadav, Congress secretary in charge of Chhattisgarh, said, "The Congress will uproot BJP this election. The candidates will be announced in the due course of time. Even the BJP hasn't declared its candidates. It's a fight between the Congress and the BJP. The people of Chhattisgarh will defeat the BJP and bring Congress this election."
"The declaration of candidates doesn't matter much now because the BJP is far ahead of Congress in the campaigning. The prime minister has been visiting the state frequently throughout the last one year and so is the BJP president. They have already reached out to the people. For the Congress the situation is exactly inverse," Former Chhattisgarh Election Commissioner Sushil Trivedi told the Huffpost India.
In an election where the ruling BJP is likely to make good use of its many resources and star campaigners including Prime Minister Narendra Modi, the Congress is clearly lagging behind.