New Delhi: The Congress leadership—Sonia Gandhi and Rahul Gandhi—has given a political “lease of life” to Chhattisgarh Chief Minister Bhupesh Baghel until the Uttar Pradesh elections.
Two things seem to have worked in Baghel’s favour, for now—his OBC identity and the fact that he is the CM of a state that is rich in mines and generates a lot of funds for the party, coffers that will be needed during the forthcoming Uttar Pradesh elections. In the past too, during the rule of both the Congress and the Bharatiya Janata Party, Chhattisgarh was a major contributor towards election funds in UP.
According to an All India Congress Committee (AICC) office bearer, who was in Raipur on Friday, Baghel has got a “lease of life” until the 2022 Uttar Pradesh elections, after which a call will be taken by the Gandhis to replace him with Ambikapur MLA and Health Minister, Tribhuvaneshwar Saran Singh Deo, or T.S. Singh Deo. Until then, the responsibilities and powers given to Deo will be increased.
Close supporters of Deo, while commenting on the matter, told The Sunday Guardian that the “fire was still raging”, but they would not add fuel to it by making any statements to the media. Baghel, who is a Kurmi OBC, has never shied away from flaunting his caste identity and had in 2019 invited a fellow Kurmi and Bihar Chief Minister, Nitish Kumar to Raipur for a Kurmi mega-event. Talking to The Sunday Guardian, T.S. Singh Deo said that he has been advised by his “well-wishers” not to comment on the subject.
Congress sources told The Sunday Guardian that Baghel’s apparent show of strength or “trust” that he enjoys with the Congress MLAs, which he flaunted by flying them to New Delhi, has not gone down well with both Sonia Gandhi and Rahul Gandhi. It was done despite the state Congress president Mohan Markam asking them not to undertake any such activity. At least 56 MLAs, along with senior state party functionaries and district presidents, landed in Delhi on 26 August, acting on the directives given to them by Baghel and state in-charge P.L. Punia. The idea behind this move, which was the brainchild of Punia, was to parade them in front of Sonia Gandhi and Rahul Gandhi, where the MLAs were supposed to tell them that they had full confidence in Baghel and there was no need to replace him with Singh Deo. A common letter, too, was drafted, which was signed by all the MLAs reposing their faith in Baghel after which it was submitted to the AICC office. The party has 70 MLAs in the 90-member Chhattisgarh Assembly.
However, Punia and Baghel were informed that neither Sonia Gandhi nor Rahul Gandhi would give these MLAs and functionaries an audience. The MLAs and the party functionaries, with whom The Sunday Guardian spoke to, said that they had come to Delhi on their own will and no one had asked them to come to Delhi. The MLAs and functionaries stayed in Le Meridien hotel and Holiday Inn, Aerocity.
The immediate trigger that led to the MLAs—including Krishna Kumar Dhruv, the party MLA from Marwahi, who had lost his son in a road accident on 24 August—making a beeline for Delhi was the “rumour” that a change in the state leadership was imminent. This was confirmed by two party MLAs and a party leader holding the charge of a corporation.
According to party sources, Punia and Baghel wanted to assure the party high command by bringing these 56 MLAs to Delhi that even if the BJP, which has 14 MLAs in the state, decided to support Singh Deo in case he turned rebel, Singh Deo would not be able to reach the majority mark of 46 MLAs. Later, Singh Deo told reporters at Raipur airport that irrespective of the decision of the high command, he would not go the “Jyotiraditya Scindia way”, while referring to Scindia resigning from the party along with a clutch of MLAs in March 2020 which led to the fall of the Kamal Nath government in neighbouring Madhya Pradesh.
According to pro-Baghel party MLAs and functionaries, who spoke to The Sunday Guardian, it would not be a “wise decision” to replace Baghel as he had become “immensely popular” in the state, especially among farmers. “The state has more than 47% OBC population, the same caste group to which Baghel belongs. We are cornering the BJP across the country on the issue of caste census. What will be the political message that will go out if we, without any strong reason, replace Baghel and appoint a ‘Raja’, T.S. Singh Deo in his place? Can anyone give one reason why Baghel needs to be replaced apart from a ‘commitment’, whose very existence is being questioned, made by Rahul Gandhi to Singh Deo?” a party functionary asked. Baghel is also active in Uttar Pradesh and directly reports to Priyanka Gandhi Vadra, who is in charge of Uttar Pradesh.
However, in the same breath the party functionary mentioned that Singh Deo was popular among the Scheduled Tribes who totalled an estimated 30% population of the state. Singh Deo belongs to the erstwhile Surguja princely state, which was established in 1613. Interestingly, the state BJP, too, is now focusing on developing an OBC leadership in the state, instead of continuing with Raman Singh, a Rajput.
Sources close to Singh Deo said that the issue of changing the CM was not “closed” as was being claimed by a “few” Congress leaders and that Deo had left the decision to the high command on whether to appoint him as the CM or not. Party sources said that Deo, who came to Delhi on Monday before returning to Raipur, has been assured that the “commitment” made to him by Rahul Gandhi will be “honoured”. According to these sources, the “commitment”, in question, was Baghel making way for Singh Deo after 2.5 years of serving as CM, a time period that ended in June.
Party sources recalled an incident from the mid-1990s when a heavyweight leader of a central state, had used pressure tactics to try and ensure that he was made the CM of the state. However, such tactics had annoyed Sonia Gandhi, who appointed someone else as the CM. Rahul Gandhi, who is an MP from Wayanad, Kerala, is expected to visit Chhattisgarh in the coming weeks where he is expected to listen to “views from the ground”. However, the date for the same has not been finalised yet.
Apart from Chhattisgarh, Rahul Gandhi is right now engaged in handling the complexities in Punjab, apart from deciding whether or not to induct Prashant Kishor in the party and if yes, then in what capacity.