Bhupesh Baghel appears relaxed in this election season. The chief minister of Chhattisgarh knows he is well settled at the top of the party’s leadership ladder in the state and in-house competitors, like T S Singhdeo and Tamradhwaj Sahu, are quite a few rungs below him.
After heading the Congress government in Raipur for five years, Baghel is now leading the party’s “Bharosa Barkaraar, Fir Se Congress Sarkar” (Faith Intact, Congress Government Once Again) campaign to retain power in the state.
One may call it a tall claim after being battered by corruption charges, with central agencies like the Enforcement Directorate (ED) breathing down on the close aides of the chief minister, but the Congress is confident to surpass its 2018 tally of 68 and win the next month’s two-phased elections with at least 75 of the 90 seats of the state assembly in its kitty.
Credit: DH Graphic
The confidence stems from the party’s belief in the Baghel government’s performance and what it offers to the voters.
The past five years did not only see Baghel consolidating his position within the Congress but also a clever political manoeuvring in governance, where he mixed the welfare of farmers, ‘Chhattisgarhiya pride’ and a pinch of ‘soft’ Hindutva along with the OBC politics.
With two-thirds of the population engaged in agriculture, farmers form an important catchment area for the Congress. It believes that the measures taken for the welfare of the farmers in the past five years will pay rich dividends. It has also promised another round of loan waivers after winning the polls.
In 2018, soon after ending the BJP’s 15-year rule and taking over as the chief minister, Baghel waived farm loans to the tune of Rs 9,000 crore and irrigation tax of Rs 350 crore. His government raised the MSP for paddy to Rs 2,650 per quintal, the highest in the country. Around 25 lakh farmers benefited from another scheme which provided a subsidy of Rs 9,000 per acre for those not cultivating paddy.
Countering the BJP’s aggressive ‘cow politics’, it also came out with an innovative scheme for procuring cow dung. Till July last year, an amount of Rs 155.58 crore was paid to the cattle farmers in the villages after procuring 77.39 lakh quintals of cow dung.
Two years ago, Baghel launched ‘Ram Van Gaman Path’ to retrace the footsteps of Lord Rama by developing the places, which he had travelled during his mythical exile, into tourist spots. To put it simply, the Congress believes paddy and cow dung will turn into votes for it.
The Congress is also highlighting the delay in the Narendra Modi government’s approval for a new quota regime, which gives more share for OBCs, tribals and Dalits in Chhattisgarh.
Baghel and the Congress never shy away from projecting the chief minister’s OBC credentials and on the lines of the party’s national campaign, it is also pitching for caste census.
The BJP too is playing its OBC card, placing the Sahu community at the centre. Baghel tries to counter it through an umbrella coalition of Kurmis, Yadav, Marars and Agharia Patels. Making it tough for Baghel, the BJP has fielded his nephew Vijay Baghel, a sitting MP, against him in his pocket borough Patan.
Baghel also ventures into the ‘Chhattisgarhiya pride’ plank to blunt the BJP’s Hindutva by owning up the identity and promoting the indigenous culture, language, cuisine, art and sports. He even organised the ‘Chhattisgarhiya Olympics’.
With the warring leaders in the state smoking the peace pipe after party chief Mallikarjun Kharge’s interventions, everything seems rosy for the Congress in Chhattisgarh. But the party does not want to be complacent.
What Congress is worried about is the possibility of the former party leader Arvind Netam’s Hamar Raj Party hurting its prospects in some constituencies. The new party is fielding candidates in around 50 constituencies, including all the 29 reserved for the STs, of which the Congress won 25 last time. However, the Congress is looking for some relief in the weakening of Ajit Jogi-founded Janata Congress Chhattisgarh and the BSP.
Sensing anti-incumbency against MLAs, the Congress dropped 22 sitting MLAs, while all the prominent leaders, including state chief and MP Deepak Baij, Speaker Charan Das Mahant, Singhdeo and Sahu, found space in the list of its candidates.
A resounding Congress victory will catapult Baghel, who led the party to its first victory in Chhattisgarh after the party’s entire state leadership was wiped out in a Maoist attack in May 2013, to a bigger stature. The run-up to the election itself proved it. While even the party stalwart Ashok Gehlot has not got the high command’s unwavering blessing in Rajasthan, Baghel has.
(Published 27 October 2023, 19:07 IST)