Since Narendra Modi came to power at the Centre, the BJP has never faced as comprehensive a defeat as in the 2018 Chhattisgarh elections (winning 15 seats to the Congress’s 68). As the countdown begins to the next Assembly polls, CM Baghel talks about the prospects of the Congress, the impact of the Bharat Jodo Yatra, and the recent attacks on Christians. He was speaking during a short helicopter ride from Raipur to adjacent Baloda Bazar district as part of his Bhet Mulakat initiative, under which he plans to visit all the 90 Assembly constituencies in the state to interact with the public and “resolve their grievances”.
How many seats do you expect the Congress to win in the coming Assembly elections?
We have fulfilled a majority of our promises. Farmers, Adivasis and labourers have seen increase in their income, we have worked on health and education, dealt Naxalism a setback. We won 68 seats last time, and it rose to 71 in the bypolls. So, our challenge is to win 71 seats again. The BJP got 15 seats, which came down to 14. Their tally will be around the same.
Would the Bharat Jodo Yatra help the Congress in the Assembly elections?
Why not? When we were in the Opposition and I was the state party chief, we did padyatras. It helped us connect with the public, they could tell us what they expected. Rahul Gandhiji during his Yatra has raised the issues of price rise and unemployment, and called for ending the divide between communities. Youngsters, women, senior citizens, sportsmen… all are joining the Yatra.
You have also emerged as one of the Congress’s prime campaigners in other states. Does it signal a change in role in the party?
The party does such experiments of using leaders to campaign in other states, and I liked it too. But I do not have any intention of joining national politics, though I will take up any responsibility the party gives me.
The Congress will soon start its Haath se Haath Jodo Yatra campaign. During a similar yatra in 2013, senior Congress leaders had been killed in a Naxal attack. How do you see the Naxal issue today in Chhattisgarh?
Yes, all our senior leaders – Nand Kumar Patel, Mahendra Karma, Vidya Charan Shukla and others – were martyred in the Naxal attack. Our party suffered a lot, but we came out with a solution to the Naxal issue. We empowered the people and tried to win their trust. We took everyone into confidence and started development works, made roads, bridges, gave employment opportunities, education, health, sports, promoted tribal culture, bought their minor forest produce. So, people there now feel this is their government. We also did a review of all the old (Naxal-related) police cases. Innocent tribals who were in jail were released and this too built trust. Now, the Naxals are contained.
The Congress talks about secularism and safeguarding minorities. But we saw violence on tribals who follow Christianity in Narayanpur
Our country has people belonging to diverse religions and groups. Our country’s identity is to move ahead together with all the religions… As far as forced conversion or luring people to convert is concerned (the reason cited for the violence), I strictly oppose it and have also acted on it… If I get a complaint against forced conversion, we will act. But everyone has the right to follow the religion of their choice.
In many families, one member believes in Buddhism and the other in Hinduism or Sikhism… You cannot change your caste because it’s by birth, but religion is about your thoughts. So, what religion you believe in is your personal choice. But if you do it forcefully, lawful action will be taken.
As far as violence is concerned, the BJP is powerless in Chhattisgarh and is now spreading violence as it has no issues to take on the Congress.
The BJP is expected to get the full support of the RSS, with its grass-root network. Are you worried about that?
They have only two issues: communalism and conversion. These two will not work in Chhattisgarh.
What would you count as your biggest achievements, particularly compared to the 15-year BJP reign?
The BJP will never give the poor 35 kg of rice, which we gave to BPL as well as above poverty line families. They will never have a Rajiv Gandhi Kisan Nyay Scheme, as part of which the farmers are getting Rs 2,640 per quintal (for their produce)… We are paying Rs 4,000 per sack for minor forest produce, the BJP will never give that much.
… They want to loot people’s money and give money to industrialists; this is their Gujarat model! The Congress model is to empower citizens, increase their income, and make their lives easy.
Why do you say the Enforcement Directorate is being used to target your government?
They say our officers are corrupt. How much money did you recover from them? The ones who are corrupt need to be punished, I am not going to protect them. But you (ED) are acting where there is nothing. On the other hand, the people of Chhattisgarh were duped of Rs 6,000 crore by chit fund companies, which have fled. These crores must have been laundered, right? Why is the ED not acting on this? I wrote a letter to them, but no action was taken as it (the scam) happened when the BJP was in power here…
Take Maharashtra. From the day (Eknath) Shinde became CM, the ED, IT, CBI, DRI (Directorate of Revenue Intelligence) or NCB have no work there. Now it’s ‘Ram Rajya’ and all the actors have stopped consuming cannabis. Earlier (when the Sena-NCP-Congress government was in power), for 10 grams of ganja, the NCB would run after people, and now no one is doing drugs there?
You have announced return to the Old Pension Scheme (OPS). Will it not burden the state treasury?
The government servants have seen the new as well as the old pension scheme. It was their demand to bring the OPS. We have done the calculation and there will be no burden on the state government. After 2070, there will be some burden. For 50 years, there will be no burden at all.
You had promised to ban liquor in the state, but instead sales have doubled.
I am in favour of banning liquor. But experience tells me it creates a lot of issues. During the Covid lockdown, liquor supply stopped completely, but it was still being smuggled into Chhattisgarh from neighbouring states. People died consuming harmful substances like sanitisers and homeopathy syrups to quench their addiction. Many have died of drinking spurious liquor in Bihar and Gujarat (where there is prohibition). So, I do not want to implement a ban which leads to deaths, but I am seeking a solution and asking for suggestions from the public to decrease liquor consumption. Many people give up alcoholism by themselves, which is better than a ban. It’s a social evil and I need people’s support to end it.