When the monsoon session of the Chhattisgarh Assembly got underway Wednesday, the BJP created an uproar raking up the issue of senior minister TS Singh Deo’s resignation from the panchayat and rural development department, even as it also moved a notice for a no-confidence motion against the Bhupesh Baghel-led Congress government.
Armed with Singh Deo’s July 16 letter to CM Baghel, resigning from one of his four portfolios, BJP MLAs, including Brijmohan Agrawal and Ajay Chandrakar, held up the proceedings of the House.
The principal Opposition demanded an explanation from the CM on the issue, maintaining that there was a “constitutional crisis” in the state as a senior minister like Singh Deo has stated in his letter that he was being sidelined and expressed his no confidence in the Baghel dispensation.
“A minister has levelled allegations against the CM. As per constitutional arrangements, the cabinet and the executive are answerable to the legislature but the state government has failed on this front,” the BJP’s no-confidence motion notice stated.
Despite enjoying an overwhelming majority with 71 members in the 90-member state Assembly, the Congress government is increasingly getting cornered over the protracted power struggle between two of its satraps, Baghel and Singh Deo.
Singh Deo’s bid to skip the initial sittings of the current Assembly session highlights his conflict with Baghel. During the last monsoon session too, he had walked out of the Assembly after allegations were hurled at him by a Baghel-affiliated party MLA Brihaspati Singh, who had to later tender a written apology to placate Singh Deo into returning to the House.
While shedding the panchayat portfolio, Singh Deo, in his four-page letter to the CM, did not mince words about his grievances. He cited “active non-cooperation” for funds to the department, appointment of a chief secretary-headed committee to approve the works under the minister in-charge’s discretionary budget, and massive disagreements on key governance matters among the reasons in this regard.
Despite their denials, the rifts between Baghel and Singh Deo have surfaced time and again. They have disagreed with each other regularly over various matters. In June, after Baghel unveiled a plan to “seek cooperation of the private sector for further strengthening health facilities” in rural areas, directing the industries department to prepare an action plan for grant/subsidy in this regard, Singh Deo told reporters that no discussion had been held by the cabinet on the issue.
It has been an open secret in the Chhattisgarh Congress that they are no longer “Jai Veeru”, the monikers given to them by the state party circles earlier. Their long-running rivalry could be traced to a purported informal power-sharing agreement between them after the party stormed to power in the December 2018 Assembly polls.
Congress sources have maintained that the splitting of the five-year chief ministerial tenure between Baghel and Singh Deo was discussed between them and the then Congress president Rahul Gandhi in mid-December 2018. The CM’s post was to be shared by the two contenders, with Baghel supposed to be holding it for the first two-and-a-half years, followed by Singh Deo.
Baghel has, however, repeatedly denied any such agreement, maintaining that he was following the party leadership’s direction in continuing as the CM. “Whenever the leadership wishes, I will leave the chair,” he has claimed. His growing stature within the Congress, which has leaned on him for campaigning during the 2021 Assam and the 2022 UP polls have only lent weight to his claims. He has also taken on the BJP at the state and central levels and has been noticed by the leadership for it.
Amid a flare-up of their tussle in August last year, which marked the completion of the two-and-a-half years of Baghel’s tenure, the latter, on being called by the All India Congress Committee (AICC) leadership, had flown to Delhi along with a contingent of party MLAs, mayors and aides. Singh Deo had then also reached Delhi and met the party leadership to stake his claim over the chief ministerial position.
The Baghel camp then reinforced his CM claim by projecting his “popular son of the soil” image, while depicting Singh Deo as a scion of an erstwhile royal family.
As the Congress high command maintained silence over this entire issue, the crisis blew over for Baghel, although his relations with Singh Deo got severely strained, which has often been reflected since.
At the July 7 cabinet meeting, Singh Deo charged that despite getting the cabinet approval, some parts of the proposal regarding the framing of the Panchayat (Extension of the Scheduled Areas) Act (PESA) rules sent by the panchayat and rural development department was changed. The department had released a draft for feedback and public scrutiny last year. Singh Deo had been actively involved in this entire exercise, attending consultations with public, officials and experts since June 2020.
The pledge to frame PESA rules was a key part of the “Jan Ghoshana Patra”, the Congress’s manifesto for the 2018 polls that the party swept.
Following two negative recent surveys about his government, Baghel launched a massive public outreach programme, “Bhent Mulaqat”, in May during which he told the people that he would get draft rules under PESA approved by the cabinet in its next meeting – something which Singh Deo had also been saying.
Newsletter | Click to get the day’s best explainers in your inbox
According to officials in the know, a committee under the chief secretary edited the Singh Deo department’s draft and altered its language. For instance, the department’s draft states that “before acquiring any land in the village, under any act by the government, permission is to be sought from the gram sabha with an attendance of at least 50% of the total”. The altered draft, however, has changed it to: “Consultations need to be held with the gram sabha before any land is acquired by the government under any act”.
State Congress leaders foresee the fallout of the Baghel-Singh Deo skirmishes damaging the party’s prospects in the Assembly polls slated for December 2023. “We had gotten a chance to rule the state after so many years and after losing so many people. Despite getting an astounding majority, we are frittering away our advantage and letting the BJP have an upper hand over us,” a senior leader said.
While Baghel has kept mum over the latest conflict, his loyalist MLAs have sent a letter to the AICC leadership demanding action against Singh Deo for “indiscipline”. Meanwhile, Singh Deo is camping outside the state. All eyes are now on the AICC’s next moves over the row.
Meanwhile, Baghel told the Assembly Thursday that he has accepted Singh Deo’s resignation from the panchayat and rural development and given the portfolio to senior minister Ravindra Choubey.