C’garh Congress in a fix: Baghel tries hard to stop Singh Deo from taking over as CM

Discontent is simmering within the party ranks. Experts ask if the BJP with 50 MLAs can rule the state for 15 years, then why can’t the Congress stay in power for five years with 70 MLAs!

T S Singh Deo (left) and Bhupesh Baghel are the two strong leaders of Congress in Chhattisgarh. Pic: PTI

The Congress has been in power in Chhattisgarh for two and a half years and, as per an informal arrangement worked out by the party high command then, it’s time for incumbent Chief Minister Bhupesh Baghel to hand over the reins to another senior party leader, T S Singh Deo. But the transfer of power, if at all it happens, may not be a smooth affair.

Undercurrents prevail and discontent is simmering within the party ranks. Political experts ask if the BJP with 50 MLAs can rule the state for 15 years, then why can’t the Congress stay in power at least for five years with 70 MLAs!

The rise and rise of Bhupesh Baghel

Bhupesh Baghel, who belongs to the dominant Kurmi community, came to prominence in 2014 after the Jheeram Valley massacre of 2013 where Naxals eliminated the entire top leadership of the party, including Vidya Charan Shukla and Mahendra Karma.

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Baghel was appointed the state Congress chief and T S Singh Deo became the Leader of Opposition.

Since the beginning, Baghel has been known for his aggression and adamance while T S Singh Deo, who has a royal lineage, is mild and accommodating and believes in taking everyone along. The third prominent face of Congress then, Ajit Jogi, a former Chief Minister, tried to establish his supremacy in the absence of Vidya Charan Shukla, but was pushed aside by Deo and Baghel. Miffed by the constant neglect, Ajit Jogi, who died last year, then took his son Amit Jogi along to float a separate regional outfit.

T S Singh Deo shows his mettle

Before the 2018 elections, when anti-incumbency was strong against BJP’s three-term CM Dr Raman Singh, T S Singh Deo was given the charge of preparing the election manifesto for Congress. He initiated a different process that was of dialogue with all stakeholders. Deo spoke to the farmers, traders, industrialists, journalists, leaders of different communities and other cross sections of the society for months to prepare an all-inclusive manifesto.

T. S. Singh Deo’s efforts were there for everyone to see. It gave an impression that if the Congress were to come back to power, Deo will be the chief minister. Then Congress president, Rahul Gandhi, too looked inclined towards him. Even the BJP thought Singh Deo would succeed Dr Raman Singh, if the BJP lost.

But, Baghel becomes the CM

Indeed, the BJP lost. The Congress won an absolute majority with 68 seats while BJP was relegated to 14; Ajit Jogi’s Janta Congress Chhattisgarh (Jogi) won five. Congress went on to win the by-polls in Dantewada and Marwahi, taking its strength to 70 in the 90-member house.

Singh Deo and Bhupesh Baghel’s names were in the forefront in the race for CM’s post, besides that of former union minister Dr Charan Das Mahant and then OBC national president Tamradhwaj Sahu. Except Singh Deo, the three others belong to Other Backward Class (OBC). Baghel was the top contender because he had led the party for five years and it was under him that the Congress won with absolute majority.

All the four leaders were called to Delhi and finally two names were shortlisted — Bhupesh Baghel and T S Singh Deo. Party insiders say Rahul Gandhi preferred T S Singh Deo as Chief Minister, but Priyanka Gandhi extended support to Baghel. As a middle path, a verbal agreement was reached to have a two-and-a-half year term for each leader and Bhupesh Baghel would take the first term.

Baghel establishes his supremacy

A series of events unfolded as Baghel started consolidating his position after becoming the chief minister. He strengthened his hold over the party and the administration. Like Ajit Jogi, the first Chief Minister of Chhattisgarh state, Baghel centralised the power structure.

But there is a difference between the two. Jogi channelized and centralised power for bringing about infrastructure development in the newly-formed state in early 2000. Jogi, a former IAS officer, made use of his administrative experience more than political considerations.

Baghel, on the other hand, is said to have used his powers only to consolidate his position. This, obviously, has not gone down well with his cabinet colleagues and bureaucracy as they were regularly shifted from one position to the other. As a result, developmental works took a back seat.

Populist schemes and state’s fiscal health

Meanwhile, Baghel went on announcing populist freebie schemes, which put tremendous pressure on the fiscal health of the state. Congress claimed it was taking loans for the benefit of farmers and the poor, but the numbers say it all. During its 15 years of rule, the BJP took loans of around Rs 32,000 crore, but in the last two-and-a-half years, the Congress has crossed Rs 36,000 crore in loan amounts and the fiscal deficit had crossed 5.4%, as per a Comptroller and Auditor General (CAG) report.

T S Singh Deo’s reputation at stake

Efforts are on to side line Deo and malign his reputation, say analysts. During the COVID second wave, Chief Minister Bhupesh Baghel started holding review meetings of the health department. Singh Deo, who is the health minister, was present in Raipur, but was not called for any of the meetings.

There was more in store for Deo. Ramanujganj MLA Brihaspat Singh called press conferences at Bilaspur and later in Raipur, accusing T. S. Singh Deo of plotting to kill him for becoming the Chief Minister. Brihaspat Singh had 18 MLAs by his side to support his claim. He cited a July 24 incident when his convoy was attacked by three youths. One of them turned out to be a relative of Singh Deo. Police registered a case and all of them were arrested, but released on bail a few days later.

The allegations against T S Singh Deo rocked the assembly. AICC general Secretary and in-charge of Chhattisgarh P L Punia had to rush to Raipur. A consensus was reached, and the matter, it seemed, was put under the carpet.

The BJP leaders used the opportunity to attack the government and demanded a statement on a serious charged levelled by a ruling party MLA against a cabinet minister. They also demanded a joint parliamentary panel probe.

Chaos continued in the assembly leading to several adjournments. Home Minister Tamradhwaj Sahu too gave a statement, but the opposition was unrelenting.

Health and Family Welfare Minister T. S. Singh Deo too walked out of the House, warning not to come back unless his name was cleared in the murder conspiracy case and the government came out with a clear stand on the issue.

Finally, Congress MLA Brihaspati Singh apologised to Deo in the assembly, saying he made the charges in an emotional outburst. The Chief Minister also supported the move. It was a small but sweet victory for T S Singh Deo, who was called back to attend the House.

Despite a ceasefire, cold war continues between Deo and Baghel with the latter not missing a single chance to put Deo down and out of the CM’s race.

To strengthen his position in the party, Chief Minister Bhupesh Baghel appointed his close associate, Mohan Markam, as Congress state chief, and took a series of decisions to keep his flock of MLAs together.

Resentment within

According to Congress party insiders, resentment is brewing among dedicated party workers, who were promised posts before the election. All the seats of boards and corporations and other bodies have gone to leaders from the Durg division, or to those in close circles of a few leaders, who did not contribute much to the party’s win during the assembly election.

Party men complain that ever since Baghel became the CM, he has not personally met any district president or party office-bearer, not even the PCC chief, to discuss organisation issues. “The office-bearers are called in the presence of 50 leaders, given a two-minute hearing and asked to leave. No personal interaction is taking place,” a Congress leader said.

Rahul Gandhi isn’t amused either

Party insiders said this show of strength by Baghel has not been appreciated by Rahul Gandhi. In this context, Priyanka Gandhi, who was on a visit to the US and was scheduled to return on August 31, was called back immediately to have talks with the warring factions. It was after Priyanka’s intervention that Baghel got to stay back as the CM. Sources say that Priyanka needs Baghel’s services during the Uttar Pradesh assembly elections next year.

But leaders close to Rahul Gandhi are opposed to Baghel continuing as the CM. They hold Baghel responsible for the party’s loss in Assam polls, where he was the party’s election in-charge. Baghel is also blamed for Congress’ loss in panchayat elections.

The liquor and sand mining mafia too have become very strong, which has not gone down well with a large section of Congress MLAs in the state.

One Congress leader pointed out that during BJP’s rule, a country liquor quarter would cost Rs 60 per bottle, now it costs Rs 120 with an additional charge of Rs 10, which is claimed to be distributed among Congress leaders — from low ranked office-bearers to MLAs.

Sand mining, which is banned during monsoon months by the National Green Tribunal, now continues all through the year, it is alleged.

Singh Deo plays smart

T. S. Singh Deo met Rahul Gandhi in Delhi recently and updated him on the situation in the state. Dr Renu Jogi, wife of late Ajit Jogi, is close to Sonia Gandhi, and is willing to merge her party with Congress. She too met Sonia Gandhi when Baghel and Singh Deo were called for talks with Rahul Gandhi.

Party insiders feel that the game is not over for T. S. Singh Deo, who spoke to media persons after his return from New Delhi recently. “My well-wishers had asked me not to utter anything which will have a larger impact on the party’s reputation. The visit was personal, there was nothing political about it,” he said.

Political analyst and veteran journalist Babulal Sharma said, “Generally the state government celebrates its tenure of one year, two years and four years. But the celebration of completion of two-and-a-half years of Congress government had actually triggered a storm within the party.”

The fact that Singh Deo and Baghel were summoned by the party to Delhi is an indication that change in leadership might be on cards in Chhattisgarh. With Priyanka Gandhi Vadra’s support, Baghel could have saved his position for the time being, but that may not be for a long term.

The Congress high command is planning to send political observers to Chhattisgarh with Rahul Gandhi himself being a part of it. “This means the top leadership wants to observe the ground situation before taking a decision on the next CM,” Sharma said.

Who is ahead, Baghel or Deo?

Before election, Baghel played a key role in strengthening the organization, during which he shunted out former Chief Minister Ajit Jogi and his son, sending a strong message to dissenters. Singh Deo, on the other hand, reached out to people and sought to know issues faced by them which were then incorporated in the election manifesto. “Deo showed a big heart and let Baghel become the CM first, but this is where the political game started,” said Sharma.

Baghel came up with pro-poor, pro-farmer schemes and even procured cow dung (Godhan Nyay Yojana) to strengthen his position in rural areas. He is actually sending a message to the party bosses in Delhi that if he is dislodged (from the post of CM), it would result in massive loss for the party. Baghel’s display of strength at Delhi and upon his arrival from New Delhi in Raipur was a part of the game, Sharma pointed out.

Singh Deo has played it smart so far. The senior leader chose not to react to constant provocations from Baghel and instead reported all of them with the Congress top brass. Deo has thus scored several brownie points.

During the state assembly elections, Deo carried out successful funding exercises for seats in Bastar, Surguja and Bilaspur. Shailesh Pandey (Bilaspur) and Ambika Singh Deo (Baikunthpur) have been vocal in supporting Singh Deo, but other MLAs are keeping mum for fear of backlash, said Sharma.

Congress reputation weakened

Political analyst and veteran journalist Babulal Sharma said that the feud within Congress has tarnished the party’s image. Congress has lost the ground it had gained after such a long fight. People thought that Chhattisgarh will remain Congress’ strongest fort in the country for some years, at least, but the feud within has badly affected the party’s reputation.

The BJP, meanwhile, has all the reasons to smile.

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