Five days after winning Chhattisgarh by a landslide, the Congress Sunday announced 57-year-old state party chief Bhupesh Baghel as its chief minister-designate. After several rounds of negotiations, Baghel was picked ahead of Leader of the Opposition T S Singhdeo, AICC OBC wing chief Tamradhwaj Sahu and former union minister Charan Das Mahant, who were all in the fray for the top post. Eventually, Baghel was picked for his work to revive the party as the state chief after the Congress leadership was wiped out in a Maoist attack in 2013, his aggressive attacks on the BJP and Chief Minister Raman Singh, and, he fits the bill as an OBC leader going into the 2019 Lok Sabha elections.
Sources involved in the discussions told The Indian Express that an arrangement, however, between Baghel and Singhdeo has been discussed, where both are likely to see two-and-a-half years in office each as chief minister.
On Sunday morning, after spending three days in Delhi, Baghel and other senior leaders arrived in Raipur, following which a meeting of all Congress legislators was called at the Congress headquarters. MLAs at the meeting said that Singhdeo proposed Baghel’s name, which was then supported by Mahant and Sahu. The motion was then unanimously accepted by the MLAs, and an announcement made.
AICC observer Mallikarjun Kharge said that he was positive that the new Congress government would work towards fulfilling the aspirations of the people. He also said that the decision was “difficult” because of the number of “strong candidates” but that this was an advantage. He said, “On Monday, at 4:30 pm, Bhupesh Baghel will take oath as Chief Minister. Later, once there is a deep discussion, the Cabinet and its members will be announced.”
As supporters sang and danced outside, Baghel then left for Raj Bhawan, where he staked claim to form the government and then went to the state guest house where meetings were held with senior government officials.
Eye on 2019, Baghel checks all boxes for his party
Bhupesh Baghel’s aggressive counters against Raman Singh, his work as the state party chief for five years after the Jhiram massacre and his stature as OBC leader, propelled him to the top post in Chhattisgarh. A section of the Congress insisted that going into the 2019 Lok Sabha polls, an OBC chief minister would only help. Among the other frontrunners, T S Singhdeo is seen as soft-spoken and even had the MLA support, but didn’t fit the bill, while Sahu was unacceptable to Baghel and Singhdeo.
Baghel told reporters, “Our first priority will be the loan waiver that we have promised for farmers in the first ten days. We will also look to set up an SIT into the Jhiram attack, which has been a longstanding demand. I am confident that this will be a government that will take everyone along and a new Chhattisgarh will be built.”
But, even as Baghel prepares to take oath as Chhattisgarh’s third Chief Minister after Ajit Jogi and Raman Singh, sources in the Congress told The Indian Express that despite the clarity of the mandate, the selection of Baghel was anything but straightforward, with many twists and turns, and “negotiations right until Saturday night.
“If the Congress thought Rajasthan and Madhya Pradesh were the difficult ones, it was Chhattisgarh that was the trickiest eventually. Like the other states, despite the clear mandate, everyone from Rahul Gandhi to Sonia Gandhi had to get involved, and more people may have left unhappy than happy. If MP and Rajasthan were reasonably managed, the way the Chhattisgarh was done was not efficient at all,” a senior Congress leader said.
Hovering over the negotiations were various factors. While Baghel is seen as someone who has relentlessly attacked Raman Singh and kept the party in the limelight, he is also seen as controversial and aggressive and is currently out on bail, chargesheeted by the CBI in a case for allegedly distributing fake sex CDs of a senior BJP minister. He has reiterated that the charges are fake.
“The biggest factor, however, was something that PL Punia and other general secretaries pushed very hard on. The OBC factor. That this is an OBC state, and the election was swung on OBC votes coming to the Congress, and therefore for 2019, there should be an OBC leader. All three, other than Singhdeo, fit the bill,” said a Congress leader.
“There is a flip side to this as well though. That Chhattisgarh does not quite have the same depth of caste identity as other Hindi heartland states, which is why Raman Singh was re-elected popularly twice. And that those that voted en masse for the Congress government did so, because of the manifesto (which Singhdeo authored), and the promises to farmers, not because of caste.”
According to sources, Bhagel and Singhdeo spoke to each other at party chief Rahul Gandhi’s house in Delhi where talk of a split term was also considered. Sources said a two-year term for Singhdeo and a three-year term for Baghel, with Singhdeo going first, was mooted first. This, sources said left Baghel unhappy and the alternative then was Sahu as CM, to which both expressed their dissatisfaction to Gandhi.