Raipur: Ahead of the assembly elections in Chhattisgarh, expected to be held towards the end of the year, the Congress party has appointed T.S. Singh Deo as the deputy chief minister on June 27.
The move comes after a tussle between chief minister Bhupesh Baghel and Singh Deo over a change in the leadership led to a crisis within the Congress party.
The Congress held a meeting to discuss poll strategy in which party president Mallikarjun Kharge, Baghel, Singh Deo, Chhattisgarh Pradesh Congress Committee chief Mohan Markam, state in-charge Kumari Selja, party secretary K.C. Venugopal and former Congress president Rahul Gandhi were present.
According to sources in the party, Baghel was called for a one-on-one meeting with Gandhi, Venugopal and Selja before meeting other Congress members. Similarly, Singh Deo also met them separately after the meeting with all members ended, The Wire has learnt.
Both of them were believed to be contenders for the top post after the 2018 election. There was reportedly an agreement that power would be shared equally between Baghel and Singh Deo for a period of 2.5 years each.
However, in 2021, the mid-point of the five-year term, the party didn’t change the leadership in the state.
Amid rumours of a change of guard, Baghel went to New Delhi to meet the top leadership in September 2021, in a show of strength to prevent such a move.
Following that, factions within the party became apparent, with targeted attacks against Singh Deo and his supporters from Baghel’s supporters becoming sharper.
The events had led to Singh Deo staging a walk-out from the assembly after allegations were levied against him from within his own party. He also quit one of the departments he was in charge of, through a public letter.
While both the leaders had dismissed the feud publicly, the tension between them seemed obvious.
Moreover, the party had continuously denied any arrangement between the two leaders on power-sharing.
T.S. Singh Deo’s appointment
At the meeting on June 27, the Congress leadership confirmed that the party would fight the upcoming election under the leadership of Baghel and with all the leaders working together. After the group meeting, however, a one-on-one meeting was sought with Singh Deo, sources in the party told The Wire.
In the meeting, Singh Deo, who had been offered the post of deputy chief minister earlier as well, was once again given the offer, which he accepted. According to sources close to him, he seemed to have accepted the offer at the insistence of the party’s top brass.
“Hon’ble Congress president has approved the proposal for the appointment of Shri T. S. Singh Deo as the deputy chief minister in the Chhattisgarh government,” read an order passed by party secretary Venugopal on Tuesday evening.
While the order didn’t clarify who proposed the same, it is understood within the party that it came directly from Rahul Gandhi, who seems to have a soft spot for Singh Deo and has publicly lauded him for his work on the Congress manifesto.
“I am a loyal Congressman. The party has given me a responsibility and I will fulfil it to the best of my ability while ensuring the strength of the party before the election,” said Singh Deo.
On June 28, Singh Deo reached Raipur and then he left for the Patan constituency in the Durg district – which is the home ground of chief minister Baghel – for a ‘Youth Jodo, Booth Jodo’ campaign.
Interestingly, the chief minister’s son, Chaitanya Baghel, accompanied Singh Deo. Chaitanya, who is a novice in political circles, drove Singh Deo around the constituency in his own vehicle.
According to political analysts, the move is aimed at reducing tensions in the party before the upcoming elections. It is also aimed at ensuring that the voter base is not lost.
“Singh Deo has a huge following in Sarguja, and in other regions like Raigarh and Bastar. His influence is expected to have an impact on at least 38 seats in the upcoming election. The move seems to be geared towards that,” said a political expert from Chhattisgarh.
Some experts also believe that Singh Deo is the party’s contingency plan due to the continuous targeting of Baghel by the central probe agencies. Several people close to the Chhattisgarh chief minister and his son, including a former aid Saumya Chaurasia, have been arrested.
Others say this move is aimed at diminishing the influence of several ambitious faces within the party, who all considered themselves as potential successors to Baghel, because of their proximity to him.
“When the cabinet was declared in 2018, it was clear that Bhupesh Baghel was on top followed by Singh Deo. However, over the past four years, Singh Deo had slid down that scale. The Congress party seems to have addressed that. Without shaking the position of Baghel, the party leaders have clearly indicated that Singh Deo is a leader of senior stature with relevance and he cannot be taken lightly,” said the political expert cited above.
“In the past three years, the people of Sarguja found their trust wavering. But now, by making Singh Deo deputy CM, the people know that their leader has been reinstated in the race. This has definitely helped boost the morale of workers and trust among the voters,” said a Congress party member.
But it seems there are different opinions within the party on Singh Deo’s position and role.
It is believed that he had to make compromises regarding the top job. “He wanted to be the chief minister but he just got a title [of deputy chief minister], that too months before the election. This is a compromise which might not mean much [to him]. In fact, it makes him liable for a lot of the government’s decisions, regardless of whether he, personally, agrees with them or not,” said a Congress supporter, requesting anonymity.
Meanwhile, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) has criticised Singh Deo’s appointment as the deputy CM.
Former chief minister Raman Singh tweeted that the Congress party seems to be sidelining Bhupesh Baghel by providing Singh Deo with a contractual appointment. He added that the people of Sarguja may perceive this as an insulting move.
The tweet, in Hindi, said that the “Congress has realised that the groundwork of their government is full of corruption and that is why [they have made] this sudden posting to project a positive image.”
कल तक “भरोसे” का ढिंढोरा पीटने वाले दाऊ @bhupeshbaghel के “भ्रष्टाचार” से अब ख़ुद कांग्रेस ने किनारा कर लिया है।
उप मुख्यमंत्री का झुनझुना लेकर सामूहिक नेतृत्व में आइये, जितना हो सके ज़ोर लगाइए लेकिन अब छत्तीसगढ़ की जनता छल में नहीं आयेगी। pic.twitter.com/JfxyxHW9WU
— Dr Raman Singh (@drramansingh) June 29, 2023
While Singh Deo has received attention and responsibilities, it remains to be seen how the dynamics between the Congress’s two top leaders pan out.