Raipur: Politics will continue at its usual pace once the coronavirus-induced lockdown ends and Chhattisgarh chief minister Bhupesh Baghel is acutely aware of this.
At the end of April, he will have exactly 12 months left in office if Rahul Gandhi keeps his promise. The person likely to succeed Baghel is T.S. Singhdeo, the incumbent health minister at the forefront of Chhattisgarh’s fight against the spread of the novel coronavirus.
Chhattisgarh is one of the coronavirus ‘sweet spots’ – as opposed to a hotspot – in the country with only 36 confirmed cases of COVID-19 and no reported deaths. It could be due to several reasons – the lockdown, the small number of foreign returnees, timely intervention, the high temperatures or the lack of cases linked to the Tablighi Jamaat. Most importantly Baghel has decided to take all the credit for the success of the battle so far.
The whole episode boded ill for Singhdeo or ‘T.S. baba’ initially. He was in Mumbai to attend to someone in his family, who had fallen unwell, the day after the lockdown was announced on March 25. Chief minister Baghel questioned his wisdom on the matter and asked him to return to Chhattisgarh immediately. Singhdeo took a private charter flight and soon returned but, as per protocol, had to be quarantined for next 14 days.
Nevertheless, he did not give up and started monitoring the preparedness of the state for the pandemic from his house via video conferences with health department officials. His team of social media handlers and media contact persons ensured his presence in the local news. Singhdeo even went on a national channel to talk about the state’s strategy for combatting the outbreak.
Baghel, on the other hand, is fairly reserved and does not like appearing on national television too often. He agreed to partake in the Congress strategy of chief ministers giving video press conferences. Locally, however, he sought to downplay the work undertaken by the health department and his media team started disseminating WhatsApp video messages from him as he started to appear on local TV channels. Baghel also started his very own ‘Mann Ki Baat’ style radio talk show on coronavirus.
But the core of Baghel’s strategy depended on following the strict lockdown protocol and the two sets of his own curfew that were announced on top of the lockdown. The first one was for two days in the second week of April and the second one was a three-day “complete curfew” which ended on April 19.
Chhattisgarh, unlike other places, has been fairly relaxed about permitting street vendors and vegetable markets, but the special “curfews” announced well in advance before the imposition of the lockdown were part of a stratagem that Baghel has not fully explained yet. He managed to successfully lock the town of Katghora when seven new coronavirus cases emerged in it and undertook extensive testing. All the seven positive cases were brought to AIIMS Raipur which has been central to Chhattisgarh’s coronavirus strategy.
Meanwhile, the confrontation between the two leaders over the handling of the coronavirus spilled out into the open at a cabinet meeting organised via video conferencing. Baghel did not allow Singhdeo to speak much and the official press release of the cabinet meeting issued by the state publicity department studiously avoided mentioning the health department altogether. Its press releases continue to ignore the health department and its officials. Baghel himself has not met any health department official for a briefing.
In the long term, Baghel’s strategy seems to be to prove that he is an able administrator and one of the cornerstones of his success will be the battle against the coronavirus which he claims to be fighting alone. At the same time, he appears keen to prove that Singhdeo has done little despite heading the health department. All this may be targeted at Rahul Gandhi, who had purportedly promised both leaders that they would share the tenure of the chief minister equally after the Congress’s landslide victory in Chhattisgarh in December 2018.
One of Baghel’s primary problems though is the terrible state of the government’s exchequer. There has barely any revenue coming in as its three major cash inflows – Excise, Mining and Property Registry – have all been severely affected by the lockdown. He has tried unsuccessfully to open all three but court stays and central government circulars have put in place several hurdles.