Senior Chhattisgarh minister and Congress leader T S Singh Deo has been caught in a tug of war with Chief Minister Bhupesh Baghel since the party trounced the BJP to form the government in the state in December 2018. Their rivalry could be traced since then to a purported rotational chief ministership formula that never materialised. As a power tussle plays out in the other Cogress-ruled state, Rajasthan, between CM Ashok Gehlot and his rival Sachin Pilot, Singh Deo speaks to The Indian Express on the crisis gripping the party amid its presidential election. Excerpts:
How do you see the developments that took place in Jaipur on Sunday? Were you surprised and what kind of signals does it send?
It is unfortunate that this sort of a development took place and it is in the category of indiscipline. We have a structure in the party and we take decisions at various levels. And some decisions are reserved for the high command. So whichever area of the organisation a decision is (related to), discipline has to be maintained. So that discipline was breached and that is not either welcome or acceptable.
Do you see it as a challenge to the Congress leadership?
In the sense that it is near…it’s not quite an open challenge so to say but it is bordering a situation where a call had been taken by the high command to send observers to meet with the individual MLAs and this process we have been seeing over decades. That there is a joint meeting and then there is an individual meeting. What I have experienced over the decades is that you first have a joint meeting where almost always a one-line proposal is put up and approved…delegating the decision to the high command. And then there is a system whereby the high command always says that thank you….you have done this…but I would like to take feedback from each individual MLA. Then the people who go there…they meet up with each individual MLA. So it is never a one-sided thing that it is always left to the high command, and sometimes it is portrayed in a way that there is lack of consultation. This has never been like that. I have seen it over decades now. It is always a one-line proposal in the beginning which is passed unanimously and then the high command always says that we would like a report from each MLA. When that is the procedure we all know…we are not children…we’re not just coming out of school or college…we’ve been in politics for years, for decades, so then to try to breach that is indiscipline.
Some time ago we also saw MLAs from your state of Chhattisgarh coming to Delhi in a show of strength.
Even then you will remember that neither did the high command give them time to meet nor did the AICC in-charge give them time to meet. So that was an indication in itself and I don’t think the MLAs in Chhattisgarh either breached that protocol or will breach it in the future. From the perspective of Chhattisgarh I am sure that whenever there is any direction from the high command the MLAs will respect it.
In Chhattisgarh, there was a talk that there was an unwritten agreement of rotational chief ministership. Two and a half years have passed. It is now close to four years. Your comments?
I can’t really divulge this publicly because there are some issues discussed behind closed doors. So I have to respect the sanctity of a privileged interaction. That apart, it has certainly been in circulation. So that two-and-a-half years have elapsed. We are nearing four years… three years nine months. So 1.25 years so to say are left for the next election… But whatever was the decision of the high command I would certainly respect it always, and I am sure in Chhattisgarh all the MLAs will respect it no matter what the decision is.
Is there a sense of disappointment that the change of guard did not happen in Chhattisgarh?
Since it is a decision of the high command it is difficult for me to say anything on that. But certainly one always feels that justice should be done.
Are you still hopeful?
Certainly. Certainly in the sense that everything is a fluid and flowing process and the constant is the decision of the high command, direction of the high command…So when I am in the party I am completely, let us say, subordinate to the decision of the high command.
There is uncertainty on the Congress president elections. Shashi Tharoor has announced that he is contesting. After the Jaipur developments, there is now uncertainty on whether Ashok Gehlot will contest or whether other top leaders would like him to contest. How do you see all this?
I think he (Gehlot) has lost his moral grounds. I mean if a person is not able to control his own home state, then how do we expect him to control the country? That question mark has come…which very experienced leaders like Gehlot, a very senior leader…it is not for me to make a comment but what I also feel is that one was expecting him also to be a front-runner. There would be more than one candidate, there could be multiple candidates. But he was being seen as a front-runner. But with his experience and with his sobriety I was extremely surprised that he showed an incapacity to control even his home state.
What will happen now?
I really don’t know but I am sure that this message would have gone across that he has not been able to control his home state.
Who would be your choice personally?
My choice is Sonia Gandhi and if not Sonia Gandhi then Rahul Gandhi. I still stand by that. I stand by that for no other reason other than that I feel that today they are the most capable to lead the party. There is no tinge or hint of sycophancy in this. My honest opinion as an individual and as a Congressperson is that today the best person to lead the Congress party would be Soniaji and if there are health constraints or whatever then it is Rahulji.
Both Sonia Gandhi and Rahul Gandhi are not willing to helm the Congress though.
You asked my opinion because nominations have not yet been filed…my honest and considered opinion is this. If they do not file their nominations then of course election will take place among those who file nominations. We in Chhattisgarh have already passed a resolution for Rahulji to be the Congress president. That is a joint thing. I am expressing my personal opinion.