Chhattisgarh polls: Congress sits pretty as Bhupesh Baghel towers over Opposition

Despite sulking rival Singh Deo, the CM seems to be on a firm pitch

Bhupesh Singh Baghel
Chhattisgarh Chief Minister Bhupesh Baghel has been promoting pride in Chhattisgarh by giving public holidays for local festivals, highlighting local games and cuisine and introducing a state song and a state icon. File photo

With just about eight months left for Chhattisgarh to go to polls, battle lines in the state are getting sharper. The ruling Congress and the main Opposition BJP have stepped up attacks on each other in the election year.

Adding to the heightened political activity is the Enforcement Directorate (ED), which, over the past couple of months, has been conducting raids on Congress leaders and bureaucrats perceived to be close to Chief Minister Bhupesh Baghel. The ED raids began just before the 85th plenary session of the AICC which was held in Raipur in February.

Also read: ED raids premises of senior officials, businessmen in Chhattisgarh; CM Baghel dubs it act of intimidation

‘ED raids politically motivated’

Baghel dubbed the ED’s raids as “politically motivated” and alleged that since the BJP could not even make any attempt to topple his government, efforts were now on to destabilise it through the misuse of the central agency.

To add to the Congress government’s problems are communal flare-ups that have occurred this year with the latest incident happening just a couple of days back.

Baghel though seems to be on a firm pitch. Over the last five years – after he became the chief minister in 2018 in face of strong resistance from senior state Congress leader TS Singh Deo – Baghel has gained stature politically and has added to his popularity.

The Congress ended 15 years of BJP rule in Chhattisgarh by sweeping elections to the 90-member assembly in 2018, winning 68 seats. The BJP was a distant second with 15 seats while Ajit Jogi’s JCC (Jogi) won 5 seats and BSP 2 seats.

Since then, the Congress has won all five assembly by-elections, retaining two of its own seats and snatching one seat from the BJP and two from JCC (J) to take its tally to 71.

Baghel’s arch rival sulking

Singh Deo, state’s health minister, has been sulking since 2018. According to various reports that appeared in 2018, Singh Deo and Baghel were to be chief minister for two-and-a-half years each, which obviously did not happen.

Watch | TS Singh Deo’s advice to Sachin Pilot: Protect your base, be patient

Singh Deo, when asked to comment on Sachin Pilot’s fast in Rajasthan on April 11, made his displeasure clear by saying he and ministers in the state are not allowed to speak about everything that is happening.

“The media is time and again asking about the 2.5 years CM formula. It hurts when it doesn’t happen,” he told reporters. However, at the same time, he added, “This is an internal matter for the party and we follow whatever the high command decides.”

Singh Deo, who has influence in about 14 seats in the Sarguja region, though is not as charismatic as Baghel who has also emerged as a favourite of the Gandhi family. Baghel worked closely with Priyanka Gandhi Vadra during assembly elections in Uttar Pradesh and Himachal Pradesh.

Upper hand in rural areas

The Congress holds a clear upper hand in the rural areas, thanks in part to the various schemes announced by the state government and the fact that it has committed no major blunders. Also, Baghel has not allowed the BJP to latch on to any major issue to discredit his government.

Last month, the Congress government announced a monthly allowance of Rs 2,500 to the educated unemployed, beginning April 1. This was one of the poll promises of the Congress in 2018. The BJP had been attacking the Congress for not fulfilling it. With this announcement, Baghel has blunted this line of attack.

According to the government notification, those who have passed the 12th standard and are unemployed will be entitled to a monthly allowance of Rs 2,500, provided their family’s annual income is less than Rs 2.5 lakh. Only one member of a family will be entitled to the allowance. If the person concerned does not get a job in a year, the allowance will be extended for a year. If anyone declines a job offer from the government or private sector, he will become ineligible for the unemployment allowance.

Also read: Chhattisgarh: 461 BJP, BJYM workers detained for bid to gherao CM Baghels house as part of protest

Baghel also used the announcement of the scheme to score a point over the BJP and the Centre as far as unemployment is concerned. Quoting a report by Centre for Monitoring of Indian Economy (CMIE), he tweeted that for March 2023, Chhattisgarh posted the lowest unemployment rate in the country – 0.8 per cent compared to 7.8 per cent at national level “which is a matter of great concern. We all have to fix it together.”

Along with the unemployment allowance, Baghel also announced a month-long ‘Chhattisgarh Socio-Economic Survey-2023’, being conducted across the state since April 1. The stated objective of the survey is to assess the impact of government’s public welfare schemes on the standard of living of the general public in the past years and use the data obtained for better implementation of the schemes and for formulation of new ones.

BJP steps up offensive

With the BJP stepping up its attacks on Baghel recently – all 14 BJP MLAs from the state plan to call on Prime Minister Modi in Delhi soon and are likely to accuse Baghel and the Chhattisgarh government of corruption. Baghel used the socio-economic survey to hit back. He pointed out that the survey will not only suggest how to improve official schemes but will also be an audit of Central government schemes. According to Baghel, the Centre brags about various schemes but the reality on the ground is different.

This has been Baghel’s strategy throughout his tenure – take on BJP aggressively whenever the saffron party tries to raise an issue. He does not leave it at that; he has been diligently promoting pride in Chhattisgarh’s identity – being a ‘Chhattisgarhiya’ – and has been publicising his government’s welfare measures.

Schemes for farmers, women

Baghel’s welfare schemes are mainly aimed at farmers and women. One of his most popular programmes is the Godhan Nyay scheme. Under it, the government buys cow dung from those who own cattle at Rs 2 a kilo. These are turned into vermipost by women self-help groups in rural areas and sold to farmers as fertiliser-without-chemicals at Rs 7-8 a kilo. This scheme is one of the main reasons why purchasing power in rural areas in the state has gone up.

Among other schemes, the government is offering subsidies to paddy farmers, cash assistance to landless agriculture labourers and has also introduced health and nutrition facilities.

Baghel has been promoting pride in Chhattisgarh by giving public holidays for local festivals, highlighting local games and cuisine and introducing a state song and a state icon. He also has taken up projects like the Ram Van Gaman Path – building statues of Lord Rama, Sita, and Lakshmana on the ‘path’ they took during their ‘vanvaas’   — thereby not allowing the BJP to play its Hindutva card.

Communal flare-ups a concern

The Congress government also passed two Bills last year proposing a hike in caste-based quota in the state to 76 per cent for government jobs and educational institutions. The Bills are still with Governor Biswa Bhusan Harichandan and have been pending after Harichandan’s predecessor Anusuiya Uikey refused to give her assent.

What though would be a concern for the Congress is the rise in communal incidents. Late last year saw a communal flare up at Narayanpur in Bastar region over the issue of conversion of tribals to Christianity. Just last week, on Saturday, a communal clash in Bemetara district left a 23-year-old man dead.

Also read: HC quashes clause in Chhattisgarh govts ad providing 100 pc quota for women in nursing college posts

The VHP and the Bajrang Dal, with the backing of the BJP, called for a bandh on Monday (April 10) in protest against the killing of the 23-year-old Bhuneshwar Sahu. BJP MP Arun Sao, state in-charge for Chhattisgarh BJP, had also led a group of 200 supporters to visit Sahu’s family. While they were stopped from entering the village, some members from the crowd manage to torch two houses. On Tuesday, bodies of two more people — a father and son, Muslims — were found from a field.

Although the BJP has an edge in urban areas, it has been unable to make any appreciable dent in Congress’ rural dominance. To see a change in its fortunes — which in Chhattisgarh had been in a freefall for most of last five years — the BJP overhauled its organisational and legislative leadership. Sao replaced Vishnu Deo Sai as state president and Narayan Chandel took over from Dharamlal Kaushik as leader of opposition. Also, Om Mathur, a confidant of Modi and Shah, replaced D Purandeswari as the party general secretary in charge of Chhattisgarh.

Targeting govt over housing scheme

The BJP recently also went on an offensive against the Baghel government over houses supposed to have been built under the Prime Minister Awas Yojana (PMAY), holding public meetings on the issue across the state and alleging that the Congress government failed to build houses under the Central scheme.

Though Baghel said the housing projects can only be undertaken after a socio-economic survey of the people, the BJP tore into his defence by pointing out that other Congress governments in the country were implementing PMAY faithfully.

Tribals’ stir against coal mine

The over a year-long agitation by tribals against permission given for a new coal mine in the Hasdeo forest region is another issue that could trouble the Baghel government. The new mine, to be developed by the Adani Group adjacent to the decade-old Parsa East Kete Basan (PEKB) open cast coal mine, has been facing protests by the tribal villagers in form of an indefinite agitation.

Hasdeo forest, said to be the largest contiguous stretch of dense forestland in central India, spans 170,000 hectares and is called the “lungs of Chhattisgarh”.

Though tribal villagers have been opposing the proposed mine for over a decade, which many experts say would threaten the local habitat and forest ecology, final clearances for the mine were granted by the government in March 2022, triggering the agitation.

Also read: PESA rules enacted in Chhattisgarh will empower tribals: CM Baghel

Naxal problem no major issue

Surprisingly, this time Naxalite violence is not a major issue in the electoral scheme of things till now. Not only were the incidents of Naxal violence few and far between during the last five years, the BJP’s bid to cash in on killing of four of its lower rung leaders in Bastar region in February too did not gain any traction.

While BJP state-in-charge Sao claimed the killings were a “political conspiracy”, the ruling party dismissed these allegations and said the BJP can hand over the probe to the National Investigation Agency (NIA) if it so wished. Clearly, the government call probably follows suspicion that there is more to the killings than meets the eye.

As things stand now, the Congress under the leadership of Bhupesh Baghel is likely to easily sail through for a second term, though not with the sweeping majority it got last time. The BJP will gain, but not to an extent to run the Congress close.