The Chhattisgarh CM says the farmers’ protest is different from the 2011 anti-corruption movement, asserts the state’s measures will constrain Naxalism soon, and criticises the 23 party leaders who went public with their concerns regarding the Congress. The session was moderated by Deputy Associate Editor Manoj C G
MANOJ C G: Does the Opposition see the farmers’ protest as the NDA government’s Anna Hazare moment? The anti-corruption movement was the beginning of a change in public perception about the UPA government.
Bhupesh Baghel: That was a different kind of movement which was aimed at ending corruption and bringing in the Lokpal Bill. It has been over seven years since the movement, but neither corruption has ended nor do we have a Lokpal. It was organised by the RSS; people were not as connected to it as it was projected.
The present movement is by farmers, and it is against the black laws implemented by the government. They are being referred to as farm laws, but they are just capitalist laws. The farmer will get no benefit from them. The farmers are on the streets because their livelihoods, their families, their future, everything is at stake. As a political party, we have supported their fight.
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MANOJ C G: But in its 2019 manifesto the Congress party had also spoken about APMC reforms, creating new markets etc.
Bhupesh Baghel: I have been hearing what the BJP leaders and ministers are saying. Of the 22 points (raised by farmers), they are only talking about two… If you look at the NDA government’s tenure… They implemented demonetisation, 125 people lost their lives. Then the Goods and Services Tax was imposed, and so many people went bankrupt and some took their own lives. This year, during the lockdown, crores of people came out on the streets. So this is the difference between policies of the NDA and the UPA governments. We formulate and implement policies based on experience and after examining things in detail.
As far as the manifesto is concerned, we took it to the public and we were rejected. We did not win the mandate. So whose manifesto should we talk about? The BJP is in power, we should ask them about their manifesto…
This government is doing everything to promote privatisation. You (changed) the Essential Commodities Act. What happened? Onions that were being sold for Rs 10-20 (per kg), their prices went up to Rs 70-80, and even Rs 150 in Tamil Nadu. Today, the farmers are protesting, tomorrow when there is no control over prices of commodities, all consumers will protest…
In the coming days, the situation for farmers is going to be very difficult because of the new mandi laws. They will not get the right price for their produce.
MANOJ C G: What amendments would you bring to the laws? Also, the protests seem to be limited to Punjab and Haryana. Even in Chhattisgarh, we haven’t seen farmers come out to protest.
Bhupesh Baghel: Firstly, our people could not join the protests physically (at the Delhi border) because of the distance. Secondly, the purchase of paddy began in the state on December 1. In (Punjab, Haryana) paddy is harvested in September and October. Wheat has already been sown.
In Chhattisgarh, the farmers have just completed their paddy harvest, and now they are selling it. About 11 lakh tonnes of paddy has been purchased so far. About 94 per cent of the farmers in Chhattisgarh are selling their produce at MSP in the state. That is why I say that the Chhattisgarh model should be implemented across the country.
GARGI VERMA: You mentioned the Chhattisgarh model. Can you tell us how it is different from provisions suggested by the Central government?
Bhupesh Baghel: Under the (Central government’s laws), a private mandi can be opened outside the main mandi. We have proposed a ‘deemed mandi’, which will encompass the entire mandi, and which will also bring the private players under its ambit. We introduced the Bill so that our farmers are not cheated. But the Governor is yet to sign the Bill. (Chhattisgarh passed the Krishi Upaj Mandi Act to counter the Centre’s farm laws in October).
HARIKISHAN SHARMA: The government has suggested a slew of modifications to the new laws. Which of these are farmers and the Opposition willing to accept?
Bhupesh Baghel: What I know is that the farmers want an answer in ‘yes’ or ‘no’. The government must do that. When the farmers have made it clear that they will not accept modifications, then why make them? Agriculture is a state subject, but you didn’t take the opinion of states and brought in these laws. If they (the Centre) had reached out to the states, the current situation could have been avoided.
As far as the mandi Act is concerned, it is not the same in the entire country. It is different in Punjab and Haryana, different in Rajasthan, different in Chhattisgarh, Bihar doesn’t have it… It is based on the situation in each state. Now if you want to implement one Act across the country, why don’t you implement the Punjab model, Haryana model, Chhattisgarh model?… But the fact is that there isn’t any uniformity in mandis across states, then how can you have one Act for the entire country?
LIZ MATHEW: Apart from the mandi issue, experts have also pointed out that reforms are needed to ensure diversification of our crops to ensure better trade etc. Isn’t that important as well?
Bhupesh Baghel: Different states grow different crops. The government can work to promote that by setting up food processing plants etc. For example, Chhattisgarh has a variety of crops that have high demand internationally as well. We need a cargo plane at the airport, but the Centre is not providing that.
Secondly, you have surplus foodgrains in your godowns. You have supplies for the next three years and there is no space to store more. So the farmers have produced the crops and done their job. Now, should they be punished for it? That would be wrong.
AVISHEK DASTIDAR: The Central government has a Road Requirement Plan (RRP) to ensure connectivity in Maoist-affected areas. The programme is now complete in 90 per cent of the country. A total of 400 km of roads remain to be built, of which 350 km are in Chhattisgarh. The Centre has cited lack of cooperation from the state for the delay. When will the project be completed in the state?
Bhupesh Baghel: I have met (Minister for Road Transport & Highways) Nitin Gadkari and Home Minister Amit Shah regarding the issue. I have proposed that the programme under which roads are being built in LWE (Left Wing Extremism) areas needs some improvements because the (contractors) in these parts take the tenders but fail to work on the ground. That is not something that has happened now, things have been getting delayed for15 years.
I have proposed that instead of building long stretches of roads, we must focus on building small stretches. In J&K you have given permission for precast, steel bridges, but you are not giving permission for it in LWE-affected areas. So many of our jawans have lost their lives trying to protect roads and bridges. If we get permission for steel bridges, then a bridge that would take six months to be built will only take a week. We will have to give less security and things will move faster.
Amit Shahji said send me a proposal and I will discuss it with other departments. The meeting was positive. It would be wrong to claim that the state government is not providing support.
VANDITA MISHRA: The farmer unions have said that they have no links with the Opposition, and will not allow Opposition leaders to speak from their stage. There was a similar situation at the time of the anti-Citizenship (Amendment) Act protests too. Isn’t this in some way a failure of the Opposition that the common man doesn’t want the Opposition to speak for it?
Bhupesh Baghel: These are two different issues. On the issue of farmers, both the farmers’ unions and political parties have spoken out. If you say that political parties haven’t done their bit… Punjab, Rajasthan, Chhattisgarh governments have opposed the laws in the Vidhan Sabha. The Congress party has always opposed them (the farm laws), and Rahul Gandhi has also spoken about this often. Now, if the farmers are saying that they don’t want political parties to get involved, then that’s fine because they don’t want to tilt towards any one political party. But we have supported them. I am happy that even non-political organisations are fighting the same fight as us.
DEEPTIMAN TIWARY: The Central security forces have often complained about not getting enough support from state police in Maoist-affected areas, including in Chhattisgarh. Why do you think we have not been successful in handling the Naxalism issue in the state?
Bhupesh Baghel: Recently, when the CRPF DG visited the state, he said that we have good synergy with the state police… Now, if the state police alone could solve the issue, then what was the need to bring in Central forces? About 15-20 years ago, the paramilitary forces were brought in because the state police could not handle it on its own. After J&K, Bastar has the most number of paramilitary forces. When I became CM, I made it clear that we must first win the trust of the local people in the areas we are fighting the Naxals.
Secondly, we need more development in the area. We need to make arrangements for healthcare, education, employment. The third aspect is ensuring security. Through these three measures, we have managed to reduce Naxal activity in the region… Despite the pandemic, we ensured that mahua flowers, tendu leaves are bought from the locals. This has helped increase trust. About 105 schools were shut in Sukma district for over 13 years, we started those. People are getting treatment through the Mukhyamantri Haat Bazaar Clinic Yojana… So with these steps, in the coming days, the Naxals will be very constrained.
DEEPTIMAN TIWARY: You have questioned the NIA investigation into the 2013 Darbha Ghati attack on Congress leaders…
Bhupesh Baghel: The fight against Naxals and disagreement on issues are two different matters. In the Minpa attack (in March 2020) where 17 security personnel were killed… They were all part of the state police. At the time, at a distance of 500m the CRPF were sitting, but they did not give support because they did not get orders. So we registered our complaint with the Home Ministry.
As far as the NIA is concerned, in July 2014 the chargesheet (in the Darbha Valley incident) was submitted. By that time, the NDA government had come to power… We asked the NIA, that if this attack was part of a political conspiracy, why was that investigation not done? Then, the FIR in the police station here (in Chhattisgarh) had names of big Naxal leaders. Why were the names of big leaders removed? If an incident occurs in Hotel Taj (the 26/11 attacks in Mumbai), people from Pakistan are named in the FIR. Then why were names of Naxal leaders removed? Why won’t we be suspicious?… It has been seven years since the attack, and the culprits are yet to be punished. The Centre is taking the incident lightly, it is obvious for us to question it.
MANOJ C G: From panchayat elections in Rajasthan to municipal elections in Hyderabad, the Congress seems to be struggling to revive itself. What is the way forward for the party?
Bhupesh Baghel: Political ups and downs will always come and go. When people want, they bring you to power, and when they want, they drop you. This is a matter of time. When the time comes, the Congress will come to power too. I am optimistic that the Congress party will do better in the coming days.
MANOJ C G: Your own party leaders wrote a letter seeking internal reforms and sweeping changes within the Congress. The letter was written in August and there is still no response. Why is the party not paying heed to suggestions by its own senior leaders?
Bhupesh Baghel: The 23 leaders (who wrote the letter) have been giving us lessons in discipline so far, that all controversial matters must be raised in internal forums, that we should talk to senior leaders about them through proper channels. What has happened to them now? To those asking questions, I want to ask a counter-question: Who stopped you from going to Bihar during the elections? But once the results came out, you promptly appeared to give reactions. Aren’t you ashamed? The party made you a Member of Parliament, minister, gave you an identity, and when the time came to stand by the party, you are busy giving advice. It is unfortunate.
The lessons that these leaders taught us are also applicable to them. They should have raised the issues in internal party forums. The Congress is the most democratic party. There have been several CWC meetings, and all these issues have been discussed. Ghulam Nabi Azad, Mukul Wasnik, they were all there. I was there too. They all got an opportunity to speak. So once they have spoken there, what was the need to speak outside?
P VAIDYANATHAN IYER: But they are all senior leaders and ministers. Should their concerns be ignored?
Bhupesh Baghel: We are all tied by a certain discipline. There are limits to it. The way you behave with your family and children, can you behave the same way on the streets? Everyone must function within limits, there is a certain beauty about it. By speaking outside, you are revealing the party’s weaknesses.
If they had spoken internally, it would have strengthened the party. There would have been reforms. These are people who have been ministers for decades. Who has brought them up to this level? So all I am saying is that they must talk internally. And the party has internal democracy. That is why, even after everything, their views are being heard… This shows the magnanimity of the leadership too.
MANOJ C G: After every election defeat, the Congress seems to follow a familiar script — some leaders call for introspection, others contest it, and so on. However, after one-two weeks things return to normal. How long will this go on for?
Bhupesh Baghel: When a party is not in power, such things happen. When the UPA government was in power, similar things would happen in the BJP too. In Chhattisgarh, the BJP was in power for 15 years, and now it has been out of power for two years. What is the party’s situation in the state? Same (as the Congress at the national level). So such things happen when parties are out of power and journalists have a field day.
There is always scope for improvement within the party. The Congress has always accepted change and suggestions for improvement. The Congress has played a crucial role in taking the country forward and the party will have the same role in the future too.
MANOJ C G: When you became CM two years ago, there were talks of splitting the tenure between you and another colleague. Was there such a proposal?
Bhupesh Baghel: Chhattisgarh does not have a coalition between two parties. We have a majority in the state. If the party high command tells me to resign, I will resign right away. But there was no such (proposal to divide the Chief Minister’s tenure between two leaders).
KAUSHIK DAS GUPTA: The Congress seems to be lacking grassroots connect, whether it was the anti-CAA protest or this farmers’ protest. Why is that?
Bhupesh Baghel: What we need to understand is that there are several organisations that raise issues connected to the common man. As far as farmers’ issues are concerned, the Congress has raised the issues. The farmers’ protest is being led by 32 organisations and we are supporting them from the outside. If they ask us for direct support, we will provide that. If you go without invitation, then we saw what happened with (Delhi Chief Minister) Arvind Kejriwal. He was forced to say that I have come here as a ‘sevadar (for your service)’. We don’t want that. We don’t want to go there (at the farmers’ protest site) to get mocked.
Why Bhupesh Baghel: Two years ago, Baghel gave the Congress its most decisive victory in a state election, winning 68 out of Chhattisgarh’s 90 seats. He is among the CMs to pass an Act in the Assembly to counter the Centre’s farm laws in October this year.
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