LESS than 24 hours before the Congress announced Bhupesh Baghel as Chhattisgarh’s Chief Minister, the party leadership led by Rahul Gandhi and Sonia Gandhi had settled for Tamradhwaj Sahu, a soft-spoken OBC leader. A box of laddoos was on the table at Mallikarjun Kharge’s residence on December 15, but none of the other three contenders, Baghel, T S Singhdeo and Charan Das Mahant, were ready to celebrate.
That Chhattisgarh got the Congress its biggest mandate of 68 seats out of 90, didn’t make the party’s job of naming the Chief Minister any easier. A dark horse in the race, Sahu’s name for the top job was almost sealed, but then the other three were not exactly pleased.
“Both Baghel and Singhdeo believed that Sahu had little role in the victory, and hardly any following in the state,” a senior Congress source said. In fact, Baghel said he would not take Raipur drama: An almost CM, a CM for 5 hours, and a CM who almost resigned the oath, resign from the Pradesh Congress Committee and be an ordinary Congress worker. Singhdeo made his dissatisfaction known and said he would want to consult his workers, the source said.
At this point, they were all called back to Rahul Gandhi’s residence. It was here that Baghel and Singhdeo spoke to each other prodded by their supporters. The two agreed to take turns as CM. Singhdeo said he would like to go first with two years, with a commitment in writing that Baghel will pick up the baton up for the remaining three years. Baghel, however, argued for the first shot as CM. Sources said the “CP” (Congress president) seemed open to a change. He made it known to all that the party had picked Sahu since both the primary leaders (Singhdeo and Baghel) couldn’t agree between themselves.
Rahul discussed the situation with general secretary in charge of the state, P L Punia, and a decision was taken internally to give Baghel and Singhdeo two-and-a-half year terms each, in that order. “The notion that the state needs an OBC leader, especially for 2019 perhaps helped Baghel,” said another Congress source.
Sahu was out of the picture suddenly, and completely. He left for his home and had to be chased by his state colleagues, yet rivals, in the CM race. Baghel, Singhdeo and Mahant rushed to soothe his frayed nerves. “Mahant will likely get the speaker’s position,” a senior leader said.
Leading up to such twists and turns until Saturday night were hectic discussions within the party in the state capital of Raipur, and Delhi. The Indian Express spoke to several Congress leaders and politicians closest to the contenders, and those part of negotiations to piece together an account of the previous three days.
Baghel, named CM Sunday, had threatened not to take the oath and resign. Sahu eventually didn’t become CM but was officially declared. Singhdeo had the bright idea of sharing the tenure but had to settle for a variation.
It was at 5 pm on December 12 that Kharge, appointed observer for Chhattisgarh arrived in Raipur. At Hotel Babylon Inn, his one-on-one meetings with all 68 MLAs extended until 2 am. The party also sent pre-recorded messages to three lakh Congress workers connected to the Shakti app, seeking their opinion.
“When Kharge left for Delhi on December 13, it was clear most MLAs had backed Singhdeo, who had authored the party manifesto and was seen as an able administrator. The Shakti app data also backed him,” a senior Delhi-based Congress leader said. Baghel, on the contrary, is aggressive and had kept the pressure on rivals BJP and ex-CM Raman Singh.
The next day, the four contenders met and spoke with Rahul Gandhi for about 10-15 minutes each. A Congress leader who accompanied one of the CM candidates said, “The questions asked were: what is your vision for Chhattisgarh, and a list of your own pros and cons,” he said.
“Punia and other Congress general secretaries, however, highlighted the OBC factor – that Chhattisgarh is an OBC state, and the election was swung on OBC votes. With Lok Sabha elections due in five months, the state would do well to have an OBC leader,” a senior leader said. While Baghel, Sahu and Mahant fit the bill, Singhdeo did not. Citing Raman Singh’s re-election as CM in the past, Singhdeo’s supporters, on the flip side, said that caste identity is not as deep-rooted in Chhattisgarh as in other Hindi heartland states.
The Congress leadership will definitely not speak about the agreement to split the five-year tenure in public. “It would send a wrong message, but as things turned out, this became eventually the only option. There was a lot of dithering and no clarity. Even now, this may not eventually happen. This is politics, and no Chief Minister wants half a term. Thirty months is a long time, and it will depend on how well the government is run, how it delivers on its promises, and what the MLAs feel at that time,” a senior leader said.