Chhattisgarh: The inside story of the Bhupesh Baghel-TS Singh Deo battle
It was the afternoon of December 15, 2018 at the New Delhi home of senior Congress leader Mallikarjun Kharge. There were four senior Chhattisgarh Congress leaders present, none of them pleased.
They should have been. In assembly results four days earlier, the Congress had swept to power in the state for the first time in 15 years in a landslide, winning 68 of 90 seats.
And yet, there sat one leader, announced to the room as Chief Minister (CM) who would lose the post a few hours later; another who reluctantly settled for Speaker; and two others who refused the leadership of the first, and would in the immediate future, thrash out an unprecedented, if clumsy, two-and-a-half year power-sharing arrangement.
And that is the cornerstone of the conflict between CM Bhupesh Baghel and Health Minister TS Singh Deo today.
The roots of the crisis
The story of their leadership begins in tragedy, in May 2013, when the then Congress leadership in the state was wiped out in one of the most lethal Maoist attacks ever.
As a Congress yatra made its way through the Darbha ghati in Bastar, an ambush ended the lives of state Congress stalwarts such as Nand Kumar Patel, Vidya Charan Shukla, Mahendra Karma and 24 others. Shorn of its biggest leaders, the reins of the party were handed over to Bhupesh Baghel and TS Singh Deo, then close confidantes.
Elections, which took place in six months, proved too soon for a change, but in the five years between 2013 and 2018, Baghel was the aggressive state Congress chief, Singh Deo, the calm and suave leader of Opposition.
As the November 2018 elections approached, and the sense that the Congress had a clear chance of uprooting the Raman Singh-led Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) government for the first time in 15 years grew, the signs of distance began to show. Baghel and Singh Deo operated largely separate from each other.
Baghel was aggressive, taking on Raman Singh for alleged corruption repeatedly, and even playing a hand in the removal of Ajit Jogi, the first Congress CM from the party. His tenure was nothing if not controversial, even going to jail for three days for allegedly circulating a distributing an alleged fake sex CD of the BJP PWD minister Rajesh Munat.
Singh Deo, on the other hand, was quieter, many argue sometimes too quiet in taking on the BJP, but spending time in the creation of an ambitious “Janghoshna Patra” (People’s manifesto) that was built by criss crossing the state, and focusing on his stronghold in north Chhattisgarh.
The post-election battle in Raipur
Cut to December 2018, and the Congress had decimated the BJP, sweeping 68 of 90 seats. Those for Baghel argued that he had led the party in the face of the 2013 crisis, and aggressively taken on Raman Singh and the BJP. Singh Deo aides spoke of the role the manifesto had played, how often it was cited among the people, and the Congress sweep in north Chhattisgarh.
The battlelines had been drawn. The central Congress leadership then seemed to begin an experiment in deciding leadership. Observer Mallikarjun Kharge arrived in Raipur, and went straight to Babylon Hotel, where every victorious member of the legislative assembly (MLA) was waiting.
As crowds jostled downstairs, shouting slogans, even breaking a glass door in the melee, in the rooms upstairs, Kharge, and general secretaries PL Punia, Chandan Yadav and Arun Oraon began an exercise. They asked each MLA whose leadership they backed, with the other option leaving it to the high command. At another level, calls went out to party workers, asking the same question, seeking responses on the “Shakti App.” Many MLA’s just left it to the High command, but as the exercise ended, most in the Chhattisgarh Congress felt that it was Singh Deo who had taken the lead.
For two days, as the Congress struggled to put out fires despite victory in Rajasthan and Madhya Pradesh, seen as much trickier — given both the narrower margins of victory, and the stature of the competing leaders in Ashok Gehlot and Sachin Pilot, and Kamal Nath and Jyotiraditya Scindia — Chhattisgarh waited.
The Delhi formula
By December 14, four leaders, Baghel, Singh Deo, old warhorse and former state Congress chief Charandas Mahant, and central OBC wing president Tamradhwaj Sahu were called to Delhi.
Each had one-on-one meetings with both Rahul Gandhi and Sonia Gandhi. By the afternoon, it became clear that neither Baghel and Singh Deo were relenting, even as crowds thronged their Raipur and Durg homes, waiting for news. Mahant had settled for speaker, but at the home of Kharge then, a decision was announced, with a box of ladoos on the table. Sahu, who had spent most of his five years in Delhi had snuck ahead to be the party’s choice. Baghel and Singh Deo were stunned, and did not accept the decision. The ladoos, it is said, remained untouched.
Ruffled by their lack of acceptance, the four were called back to the residence of Rahul Gandhi, and it was here that the power sharing deal was thrashed out. Gandhi reportedly conveyed that Sahu had been made CM because his two leading candidates had reached an impasse. Prodded on by their close confidantes, Baghel and Singh Deo spoke for the first time, and came up with a solution.
Singh Deo presented a scenario where he would take power for two years initially, and Baghel for the next three, with the next elections being fought under Baghel. Faced with the prospect of Sahu being CM, Baghel acquiesced, but wanted to go first. Gandhi reportedly stepped in, and nixed the two and three idea, arguing for a split two-and-a-half year term each. The question then became who would go first, with Gandhi and Punia among those that deliberated, and eventually that role went to Baghel.
Central to that decision was the argument that Chhattisgarh has a large population of OBCs and with Lok Sabha elections in six months, it would do well for the party to have an OBC leader at the helm.
Singh Deo’s side argued that while there may be OBCs in Chhattisgarh, they are scattered, and don’t vote on caste lines, pointing to a Thakur leader in Raman Singh winning three terms, and that Chhattisgarh was, at its core, a tribal state.
Six months later, despite the thumping assembly victory, the Congress won only two of eleven Lok Sabha seats. Its biggest margin of loss was in Durg, by close to 400,000 votes, home to its OBC chief minister Bhupesh Baghel and OBC Home Minister Tamradhwaj Sahu.
The persistent friction
Saddled by this two-and-a-half year arrangement at the top of their minds, the relationship between Baghel and Singh Deo, now health minister, has never mended. The closer one is to Chhattisgarh, the stronger the sense of friction, despite claims of “collective leadership”.
While the disagreements have been quieter than ones in Rajasthan and Madhya Pradesh, in Chhattisgarh, there have been many examples of the simmering anger, with Baghel accused of not inviting Singh Deo to health department meetings. In that time, Baghel has built a national profile, campaigning in Uttar Pradesh and most recently in Assam, even going door to door. Within the state, the power balance has seemingly shifted too, towards Baghel, with a focus on a “Chhattisgarhiya” son of the soil identity. Baghel has become a loud and reocgnisable voice, often frequenting national media events, and strongly putting forth the Congress stance.
And yet, not everything has been perfect. In May, four tribals in Bastar died in alleged police firing in Silger, and in the protests in the aftermath, human rights activists Jean Dreze and Bela Bhatia alleged that they were prevented from going to the spot. There have also been allegations of a reduction in a proposed area of an elephant reserve at the altar of mining, something Singh Deo has objected to.
By June 17, the day the two and a half year term deadline was passed, the voices of disagreement had only become louder. Recently, Singh Deo walked out of the state assembly, with Baghel sitting inside, irked at the lack of a government response denouncing allegations by Baghel loyalist Brihaspati Singh that he had engineered an attack on his vehicle. Singh Deo only returned to the assembly after an apology was issued, and none other than Tamradhwaj Sahu issued a statement.
Will the deal be implemented?
Two months later, saddled with a clumsy power-sharing agreement that was ill designed, the future is still unclear. Last week, in meetings with both leaders, it seemed like that the Congress leadership wanted Baghel to honour the agreement, and a defiant CM returned to Raipur, alleging that those who spoke of such an arrangement would never succeed.
Baghel then returned to Delhi on Friday morning, with more than 40 MLAs in tow, for a second meeting. In another marathon conversation with Rahul Gandhi, and this time Priyanka Gandhi too, he seems to have accrued an advantage by pointing to his tenure as CM, and of course, his supporters bringing back the argument that his OBC identity was an asset. Emerging out of the meeting, Baghel said he had put “all issues” in front of his leader, and he had invited Rahul Gandhi to Chhattisgarh next week, “as Chief Minister”.
Singh Deo’s argument has been constant. That Baghel’s chief ministership was premised on the deal, and he would simply like it honoured. His aides argue that unlike Pilot and Scindia, he has dealt with his marginalisation with dignity, and rarely spoken out of turn.
When he returned to Raipur on Sunday, to a quieter welcome than the jubilant scenes of Baghel’s triumphant welcome in the morning, Singh Deo said that “everything” had been discussed and the decision “had been kept safe for now”.
For the Congress, the leadership can either take the position that the promise must be enforced and send the message to its leaders that it will live up to its word. Conversely, it could take the position that Baghel has grown into his role and that a change midway, no matter what promise, sends a poor message. Either way, the continuing silence from the Delhi leadership, and two leaders hanging on to hope, will only further cleave the party from within.
While there is no immediate danger to the government with the numbers it has at its command, there will be an election to fight in a little over two years. Even as a surprisingly subdued state BJP watches from a distance, the notion that even in a state where the mandate is clear and the leaders are no behemoths, the Congress is incapable of keeping its house in order, will only grow stronger.