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Why Rahul Gandhi is to blame for Chhattisgarh leadership tussle

| Updated: August 29, 2021 10:09

Bhupesh Baghel breathes for now.

Exigencies of politics dictate which promises will be kept and when. Chhattisgarh health minister TS Singhdeo, by all accounts a gentleman, has learnt this the hard way.

Rahul Gandhi has for a second time chosen to not keep his promise about leadership of the state, as incumbent Bhupesh Baghel won a reprieve and will continue for the foreseeable future at least.

Singhdeo, who banked upon Rahul keeping his promise, is left holding the brass bowl.

Let’s begin where it all began.

After the stupendous victory of the Congress in the 2018 Vidhan Sabha polls where it beat the BJP 68-15 in the 90-seat Assembly, the Congress had three serious claimants in Pradesh Congress Committee (PCC) president Bhupesh Baghel, Leader of Opposition Singhdeo, and Rahul’s personal choice — the then Lok Sabha member Tamradhwaj Sahu.

After the customary felicitations in 10 Janpath, Sahu’s name was declared and he immediately left for the airport. Singhdeo and Baghel got together and told Rahul that it was not acceptable to them as Sahu had no support in the legislative party and they would rather resign and continue as simple party men.

Rahul came under pressure and Sahu was recalled from the airport even as crackers were being burst in his village.

It became clear to Rahul that Sahu did not have enough men among the MLAs; Singhdeo had 42 while the rest were with Baghel. So Rahul broke his first promise.

It was easy enough as Sahu took it on his chin and settled for the home department. Rahul then apparently floated a placatory 2.5-year seat-sharing formula to both of them and Baghel insisted on taking first turn.

Singhdeo, on his part, said he would be happy if he was given two years but first turn. Baghel prevailed and thus was sworn in on December 17, 2018 — a good week after the due changeover date.

For the past two-and-half years, relations between Baghel and Singhdeo, once known as “Jai and Viru” for sticking together against Raman Singh, have deteriorated beyond the point of cordiality. Baghel has left no opportunity to needle Singhdeo into a rebellion or resignation, which would clear his way for a full term, refusing to call Singhdeo for cabinet meetings, ignoring him if he was there and running his department through proxy.

They even bickered over a Covid management website so the state has two —one by the health department and the other by the CMO.

Things reached a head last month when Brihaspat Singh, a Congress MLA from Singhdeo’s own backyard of Ambikapur, alleged that Singhdeo was trying to murder him. It led to a furore in the Assembly and Singhdeo decided to walk out and not come back till Brihaspat apologised.

Brihaspat apologised, but as is customary in such tactical moves no action has been taken against him either by the party or by the police for making such serious unsubstantiated allegations against a sitting minister.

Singhdeo intensified his efforts to get Rahul’s attention in the first week of July. He had several rounds of meeting with all relevant general secretaries and Rahul and Priyanka. Baghel was also called but nothing came of it. Singhdeo was told to wait till August 15 as Punjab issues were being settled.

August 15 came and went and Singhdeo continued to camp in Delhi and Bhopal. Baghel was called again twice, and after several long meetings the issue seems unresolved still.

To rival Singhdeo’s efforts, Baghel has put his cards in order. In a well-orchestrated campaign, several media personnel in Delhi started relentlessly tweeting that a “royal lobby” was out to destabilise Chhatisgarh. This was a direct reference to Jyotiraditya Scindia, who led a revolt against Kamal Nath and is now a Union minister. Singhdeo is the scion of Sarguja state.

Other power brokers started a rumour campaign that a “major mining company” was behind Singhdeo’s latest power grab efforts. Adani is the only major mining company in Chhattisgarh.

Another stream of Baghel supporters is more political, as copious notes are being written by paid editors on how OBCs will be unhappy if Baghel is removed. It ignores the fact that the OBC is not a unified whole and comprises several powerful castes like Teli, Agahriya, Kurmi, Devangan and Sinha in the state. Baghel belongs to Kurmi caste while Sahu is the leader of numerically largest of them all — Teli, incidentally the Prime Minister’s caste as well.

Officially the date of supposed changeover was July 17, 2021, but Congress general-secretary-turned Baghel’s spokesperson PL Punia announced that there was no 2.5-year formula. Baghel even chose to quote Punia rather than Rahul on this.

So, if there was no such formula, why have all the rounds of meetings in Delhi at Rahul and Priyanka’s residence? Why ask both leader to confer with KC Venugopal? Why let Singhdeo hang around in Delhi at all?

The man responsible for this has said nothing so far. If he has made a promise he should keep it as both men will listen to him. The undiluted truth of Chhattisgarh politics is that both Singhdeo and Baghel are not big enough to leave the party, despite their posturing. Neither of them is wanted by the BJP for any sort of Operation Kamal either as the numbers don’t stack up.

Nevertheless, as the game progressed in Delhi, the confusion within the Congress’s top leadership is reminiscent of the Sidhu-Patiala rivalry. After several rounds of meetings and posturing, Navjot Singh Sidhu was finally made the PCC chief and he still seems relentlessly gunning for Patiala’s chair. 

Incorrigibly, Rahul is helping build and unfold another such scenario in Chhattisgarh — by not keeping his promises time and again.

Neeraj Mishra is a senior journalist and practising lawyer. He has written extensively on central India over past three decades for India Today, Indian Express, Outlook and Sunday Times, London.

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