Defying threats by Maoist insurgents, voters went to the polls in the central state of Chhattisgarh Monday in the first of five state ballots that will test support for India’s two main political parties before the 2019 general election.

Representatives will be elected for 18 seats in the state assembly, with voting in the other 72 constituencies scheduled to take place Thursday and on November 20. Polls will follow in the central state of Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan in the northwest, Telangana in the south and Mizoram in the northeast.

Reports of violence between the Maoists and security agencies have overshadowed voting in Chhattisgarh, but there was a strong early turnout in many constituencies. Voting at 53 polling stations was delayed for technical reasons, according to the Election Commission.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) is expected to retain Chhattisgarh, a state with a massive tribal population that was carved out of Madhya Pradesh in 2000. The outcome could have a bearing on voting in Madhya Pradesh, where the BJP has a slight edge over the opposition Congress party.

The BJP will be assessed on its 15-year record of governing the state of Chhattisgarh, while Congress has already lost ground following a rebellion within its ranks: state vice president Ghanaram Sahu left the party to join BJP only hours before the election began.

Since it first took power in Chhattisgarh in 2003, the BJP has had a winning margin of less than 2% over Congress in every assembly or Lok Sabha (House of the People) poll, with Bahujan Samajwadi Party (BSP) of Mayawati taking a 5% share of the overall vote. In the last assembly poll, the difference was only 0.77%, so it would take only a small swing to Congress to loosen the BJP’s grip.

Yet the opposition party has entered the election in poor shape. First, it failed to quell a rebellion by erstwhile leader and former Chief Minister Ajit Jogi, then the party was unable to strike a partnership with Mayawati’s minority BSP party.

Tribes could have a decisive influence

Ajit Jogi formed Janata Congress, which has made an alliance with BSP and the Communist Party of India and led a spirited attempt to unite the Scheduled Tribes (ST) and Scheduled Castes. Together accounting for nearly 47% of the population, these two groups have a decisive influence on 40 of the 90 seats in the legislative assembly.

The SCs and STs have traditionally voted for Congress, but the political landscape has changed in the last 10 years. BJP’s parent organization Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) has made deep inroads into the hinterland through its Seva Bharati and Vanavasi Kalyan Ashram, politicizing the tribal areas with Hindutva ideology.

There is now a distinct difference between the Hindu and Christian Adivasis (tribals). Furthermore, the hold of Congress among scheduled castes has also weakened with the departure of Ajit Jogi from the party and the steady rise of the BSP.

While Congress has had the most to lose from Jogi-Maya’s third political front, BJP has also lost ground due to the harsh impact of demonetization on the farm economy, which has always been cash-dependent. Farmers have also been denied the correct Minimum Support Price rates and have had no crop bonus for the last two years.

Urban traders, usually a BJP votebank, have likewise been badly affected by the ever-changing Goods and Services Tax regime. Not surprisingly, Modi stayed silent on the demonetization and GST issues at his only two Chhattisgarh public rallies, preferring to speak about  “urban Naxals” (Marxists), which attract little local interest. Congress kept its focus largely on the same two issues Modi had avoided.

Lurking in the background is the unspoken topic of social struggle: around 47.9% of the population is below the poverty line. Mineral-rich Chhattisgarh was carved out of Madhya Pradesh because it was not getting its share of development, yet poverty has fallen by just one percentage point since 2000. The state is ranked a lowly 23rd in the Human Development Index, out of 29 Indian states.

Backlash against assembly members

Left-wing insurgents are building support on this abysmal poverty; having started with eight districts in 2000, they are now active in 18 districts (including some districts that were carved out of larger areas). The state treats this as largely a law and order issue, and an excessive use of violence by police in many tribal villages has been  condemned by the National Human Rights Commission.

A public backlash against incumbent assembly members has hit the BJP hard, despite the personal popularity of Chief Minister Raman Singh. About one-third of the BJP’s state members have had their electoral tickets canceled.

The fact that most opinion polls are predicting a BJP win is mostly down to the chief minister’s strong image and some key development initiatives — including an e-auction in mining, a telecommunications upgrade and low-cost rice handouts for each family. The distribution system for rations has been voted the best in India, there are three “smart” cities in the state, the Tata Cancer hospital will be built in Rajnandgaon and new railways are planned in the hinterland.

However, what is being missed is the fact that the consolidation of SC and ST voters could provide a viable alternative in the Jogi-Maya combine, and even the Marxist campaign against voting seems to be less critical of this political movement.

BSP, fighting in 35 seats, is very hopeful of winning at least eight, especially those in Janjgir Lok Sabha constituency — since its founder Kanshiram has fought elections here. CPI will be strong in three seats, and Ajit Jogi’s influence will be apparent in at least 10 seats that have large numbers of Satnami voters. If even half of these seats are won by the emerging third front, both national parties are in for a shock.

Findings in one opinion poll by CVoter suggest that the Jogi-Maya combine may end up with 20% or more of the votes and at least 15 seats. This might lead to a Karnataka-type situation, with BJP trying to form a government after winning only 46 of the 90 seats.

We might see an action replay of the Bengaluru model here too, with Rahul Gandhi offering Ajit Jogi the post of chief minister and calling for a Congress-Third Front alliance. Unprecedented in Chhattisgarh’s brief history, this outcome would also shake up the national political landscape ahead of the looming general election.