Baghel began his political career as a youth Congress activist in the early 1980s in undivided Madhya Pradesh. Photo: Twitter/@bhupeshbaghel

In Chhattisgarh, mix of politics & humour is Baghel's answer to Modi

On April 5, a parcel was delivered at the Prime Minister’s official residence at New Delhi’s 7, Lok Kalyan Marg.

It was a gift from an unassuming Congress politician Bhupesh Baghel, about whom very few had heard outside his state before he was anointed as third chief minister of Chhattisgarh barely four months ago, capping BJP’s 15-year rule.

The gift, a benign wall mirror—an April Fool’s Day present—was Baghel’s way of conveying a strong political message through a light-hearted gesture. The underlying message was stark: The Prime Minister must see himself in the mirror before venturing out, lest he should forget which “mask” he’s wearing.

“I am sending you this mirror as a gift. You hang it at a vantage position in your residence at Lok Kalyan Marg so that you can try to identify your real face by looking into this mirror again and again every time you pass by it,” the Congress leader tweeted in Hindi after sending the parcel.

When the BJP responded to his sarcasm, calling him “chota aadmi (a petty person)”, he immediately gave the slur a spin, writing on his Twitter profile: Han mein chota admi hun (Yes, I am a humble man).  Then the Congress’s OBC face in the state went on to harp on about his “modest background” of being a farmer’s son (It was altogether a different matter that Baghel is anything but a quintessential farmer). There, he of course was taking a leaf out of the BJP’s book, or to be precise Modi’s book.

The bespectacled 57-year-old Congress leader, with a painter’s brush moustache, displayed his ingenuity once again when a group of BJYM members stormed into his election rally in Jashpur district earlier this week.

When police, wielding batons, rushed to chase the group out of the venue, Baghel intervened. Instead of creating any ruckus, which would have instantly made headlines, he let his supporters shout after him: Chowkidar chor hain. The trick worked. Subdued by the roar, the group left the venue meekly.

It’s with this mix of humour and political acumen that Baghel led the Congress as its state unit president to dislodge Raman Singh’s BJP government in December last year. The Congress swept to power winning 68 of the 90 assembly seats, delivering the most spectacular electoral victory for the party in the recent past.

Baghel’s rise to the top echelon of the state Congress, sidelining party strongman Ajit Jogi was not easy. But he took the tough call after Amit Jogi, the son of the state’s first chief minister, was accused in the Antagarh tape controversy.

The tapes purportedly contained conversations between the Jogi duo and then CM Raman Singh’s son-in-law Punit Gupta that hinted at a horse trading deal that led to the withdrawal of a Congress candidate from the Antagarh Assembly by-election in 2014 to ensure BJP’s victory.

Following the development, Junior Jogi was expelled from the party and the senior Jogi, in whose government Baghel served as minister from 2000-03, resigned.

It was a bold move because many in the Congress were under impression that ouster of Jogi would lead to further decimation of the party, the entire state leadership of which was wiped out in a Maoist attack at Jheeram Ghati in 2013. Then party chief Nand Kumar Patel and former Union minister VC Shukla were among the 30 people killed.

The following year Baghel, who began his political career as a youth Congress activist in the early 1980s in undivided Madhya Pradesh, was appointed as PCC chief.

Within four years, he built the party from the scratch and dethroned the BJP with his street-smart politics. Barely a couple of months before assembly elections, when the CBI filed a chargesheet against him in a sex CD case, Baghel refused to seek bail and went to jail playing victim. The rest, as they say, is history.

After taking oath as the CM, he waived off short-term farm loans of about ₹6,100 crore, benefitting about 1.5 million farmers. He also raised the minimum support price of paddy to ₹2,500 a quintal. The remuneration of tendu leaves collectors has been increased from ₹2,500 per sack to ₹4,000 per sack, to benefit forest dwellers and tribals.

The key to the Congress’s revival in Chhattisgarh, where the BJP won 10 out of the 11 Lok Sabha seats in 2014, was winning back the support of OBC voters.

The Kurmis and the Sahus together constitute 36% of the total population of the state. Retaining this support base is important for the Congress to prevent the resurgence of the BJP in this parliamentary election.

Modi at an election rally in Chhattisgarh on April 16 claimed Congress president Rahul Gandhi insulted the entire Sahu community by targeting him.

“There is a namdaar (in an oblique reference to Rahul Gandhi) who said recently that all Modis are thieves” the PM said, adding, “those of you who are identified as ‘Sahus’ here, if you go to Gujarat, you will be called ‘Modis’. So tell me, are you all thieves? Should we believe that we are all thieves? Are you going to let this go without giving an apt reply to those who say things like this?”

The state Congress swiftly responded to the charge moving to the Election Commission, accusing PM of violating election code of conduct by making casteist remarks.

Soon, the BJP was seen scurrying to convene a press conference in Raipur to downplay the political controversy generated by Modi’s remarks.

The BJP is against the politicising of any community or caste for political benefit, former Raipur MP Ramesh Bais said.

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