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Politics

Chhattisgarh: The Curious Case of Bhupesh Baghel's Populist Moves

Baghel has suddenly become active. Is it to grab the attention of the party high command?

Raipur: By changing three chief ministers in Gujarat, Uttarakhand and Karnataka, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) high command has shown that it has complete control over the party even as Congress struggles to solve its internal issues in Chhattisgarh and Punjab. That, according to many, is the prime difference between a decisive Narendra Modi and an irresolute Rahul Gandhi.

Over the last fortnight, Chhattisgarh chief minister Bhupesh Baghel has probably launched more populist schemes than in the past two and a half years, indicating that things are moving at a hectic pace in the state. Suddenly, the traditional arms of administration which had been ignored for so long have been shaken and brought out to do what they should.

The state commerce and industry department, on September 1, announced it would hold a global investors’ meet in January 2022. The event is likely to see a host of memorandums of understanding (MoUs) as local companies have been asked to prepare projects highlighting growth opportunities in mining, steel, IT and hospitality sectors.

During former chief minister Raman Singh’s term, such jamborees had been abandoned and none of the signed MoUs worth over Rs 1 lakh crore ever came to fruition. The state appeared to take its cue from Gujarat which had started the Vibrant Gujarat Summit under then chief minister Modi.

Now, the agriculture department has suddenly become active and wants to make Chhattisgarh a “millet hub” with a renewed focus on alternative cropping. Millet has never been part of the diet in the state.

The most noticeable change can be seen in the publicity department, which has shifted its focus to “English language media”, which had so far not even been invited to meet the chief minister. Baghel, who operates much like Modi in his own imperious style, has suddenly softened and wants more publicity. He’s probably reminded that the English language media cannot be ignored if he wants the party high command to be abreast of the developments in Raipur. His advisors have been told to get active on the ground on this count.

Also read: Congress Is No Longer a Rainbow Organisation; It Has To Accept New Realities, Stick to Core Values

Reasons behind such sudden changes

What does Baghel hope to achieve with these changes? It all flows from the series of meetings Baghel has had with Congress leader Rahul Gandhi in New Delhi in the end of August.

After arch rival and state health minister T.S. Singhdeo asserted his right to the chief ministerial chair under a supposed 2.5-year formula promised by Gandhi in 2018, it appears the Congress leader asked Baghel to start “winding up proceedings”. But Baghel is not about to give up without a fight as he believes that the Congress won because of him and he best serves the party’s cause as an “OBC face in an OBC state”. Baghel arrived in Delhi with at least 26 MLAs, some ministers and MPs in an unprecedented show of strength for a Congress chief minister from central India.

However, the MLAs and the ministers were asked to return to Raipur immediately. They returned, but Gandhi understood the two-faced game that All India Congress Committee’s (AICC) Chhattisgarh in-charge P.L. Punia has been playing while publicly denying that there is a 2.5-year seat sharing formula, and devising MLA-parading schemes with Baghel. He has now been asked to stay off issues related to Chhattisgarh.

Gandhi’s troubleshooter and AICC general secretary Ajay Maken was sent to Raipur to talk to the MLAs individually. During his two-day stay, Maken met all of them and made them agree that they will stand by whatever the high command decides. Meanwhile, Singhdeo said: “I have been advised by my well wishers to keep a low profile.”

Also read: Congress’s Top Leadership Steps in To Try and Resolve Internal Rift in Chhattisgarh

A minister in the Baghel cabinet confirmed to The Wire the above scenario and related that they have been told about the high command’s  position and asked to start winding up. But it appears that Baghel has also said that he would not go down without a fight and will convince the high command of his utility and vision as chief minister.

The trouble with Baghel’s line of “OBC politics” is that the Congress has always believed in an all-encompassing type of public stand where caste politics is not its primary objective, although the party chooses caste leaders for various positions. It may have lost out to caste-based parties in Uttar Pradesh and Bihar, but it has still retained a brand of politics which is not identity-based.

Baghel, a Kurmi like Bihar’s Nitish Kumar, has been projecting himself as the “OBC face of the party” in the state, but his detractors say that Sahu is the largest OBC community and Kurmis make up numbers on the lower end.

The OBC community itself, of course, is not a homogenous one. Tribals comprise 32% of Chhattisgarh’s population and Dalit-Satnamis are around 10%. The OBCs who include castes from the Sahu, Kurmi and Yadav community form about 50% of the state’s population, but counting them as a “block” would be a mistake as they do not vote en bloc.

In the past two and half years, Baghel has lost out on building an image which would stand him in good stead politically in the long term. Egged on by a fawning bunch, he has tried to implement half-baked schemes like Narwa-Ghurwa and Atmanand English schools in every district, but half heartedly. Now he’s suddenly changing his tactics to grab the attention of his party leader. He has a thin line of thinking in his support – which is that the Congress might not like to disturb him till Uttar Pradesh elections.