21/11/2018 8:31 AM IST | Updated 11/12/2018 2:07 PM IST

The Congress Is Winning Chhattisgarh, But Infighting Had Almost Ruined Its Chances

A rift between Bhupesh Baghel, the Congress's president in Chhattisgarh, and the rest of the leadership has hurt the party.

Hindustan Times via Getty Images
File photo of a 2018 Congress Rally

NAGPUR, Maharashtra — Days before the final list of Congress candidates for Chhattisgarh's assembly elections was announced earlier this month, one Congress candidate asked the party to change his seat.

The seat, this candidate was requesting was a high-profile and competitive seat compared to the easier one which he had been allotted. But the Congress leadership acceded to his request.

Yet shortly before this list of candidates was officially declared, the candidate — a senior Congress member familiar with the matter told HuffPost India — received a call from Chhattisgarh Congress president Bhupesh Baghel who asked him not to take the seat.

The candidate was baffled but he told Baghel that he will do what the party will tell him to do.

This did not pacify Baghel, who called the candidate again and asked him to write to the party's central leadership to turn down this particular seat.

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The candidate demurred and switched off his phone, fearing more pressure. This candidate's phone was switched off for two days and those who wanted to get in touch with him had to send a car and driver to convey their messages to him.

The candidate ultimately did contest from his chosen seat against a minister in the Raman Singh cabinet. But the back and forth with Baghel over ticket selection is an illustration of how in-fighting within the ranks continues to plague the Congress, almost leading it to lose an election where the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party was facing widespread disaffection after three consecutive terms in power.

While Baghel did not respond to repeated requests for comment, Shailesh Nitin Trivedi, the head of Congress' communication department in Chhattisgarh denied any rift between Baghel and other party leaders.

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"Bhupesh Baghel has damaged the Raman Singh-Jogi duo properly. He has fought them tooth and nail," Trivedi said. "Raman Singh and his ally Jogi don't like Bhupesh Baghel which why they have been spreading such kinds of false stories. There is no truth in that."

Yet, with the campaign over, voting complete, and the state awaiting election results on December 11 this year, senior congress leaders have expressed concerns that Baghel may have sabotaged his own party.

The rift between the Baghel the state party president, and the rest of the party leadership — backed by the Congress high command in Delhi — wasn't restricted to just one seat.

READ: Is The BJP Losing Ground In Its Bastions?

"The party was ready to give up on some seats (to sideline Baghel) and most of the candidates suggested by Baghel were denied tickets. He flew to Delhi when he got to know that his recommended candidates may not get tickets," a senior congressman said. "He even threatened to resign when Dhamatari (assembly segment) candidate was not given according to his wish. Things were not right. The main criteria was winnability but the candidates, he was suggesting, were not really up to the mark."

Non-Performing Asset?

In September this year, Baghel was briefly jailed for allegedly conspiring with a journalist to circulate a fake pornographic video clip of the BJP's state PWD minister Rajesh Munat. Baghel was jailed after the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) filed a chargesheet claiming that BJP leader Kailash Murarka commissioned the CD in 2017, and gave it to Baghel to circulate.

Within days of his release from the jail on bail, local television channels were carried another unverified video clip — this time of Baghel allegedly asking a local fixer for for a pornographic video clip involving his own Congress colleague and Congress General Secretary in-charge P.L. Punia, in return for giving the fixer Congress tickets to contest two seats in the up-coming state elections.

Subsequent unverified clips showed Baghel allegedly discussing making compromising video clips of other senior Congress leaders. In October, Baghel told the Hindustan Times that all these purported video recordings were part of an elaborate ruse thought up by the BJP and Chief Minister Raman Singh.

Yet Baghel's involvement, however tangential, upset the Congress's central leadership and state unit, as the purported conversations gave an impression that Baghel did not want anyone else to be in the chief ministerial race except himself.

"Many party leaders from the state went to Delhi to complain about Baghel to the central leadership. But the central leadership did not want to risk alienating OBC Kurmi (Baghel's community) votes by removing him as the state president," another Congress leader told HuffPost India.

On October 12, the Congress announced the formation of a panel comprising senior Congress leaders to manage the ticket distribution and campaign but party said the panel was intended to curtail powers of Baghel.

The person, most affected by the disclosure of these conversations, was T.S Singh Deo, the Congress's leader of opposition.

"He was absolutely crestfallen. Since Baghel became the state unit chief, Singh Deo always projected him as a leader. A couple of years ago, he even announced in Patan (Baghel's assembly consistency) that Baghel will be the chief ministerial candidate," a Congress leader from Sarguja informed. "Now they talk to each other just for the sake of formality. The camaraderie witnessed in last four years is gone because of Baghel."

Trivedi, the head of Congress' communication department in Chhattisgarh and considered to be close to Baghel, also added to Baghel's woes by leaking the Congress's manifesto to a local news channel, hours before Rahul Gandhi was scheduled to release it.

When a reporter from another channel objected to this, the manifesto was shared on a WhatsApp media group of the party.

It was deleted within minutes but many members of that group had already downloaded it.

Some Congress members expressed sadness over how Baghel had been sidelined, but said it was inevitable.

"He worked hard, there is no doubt about it. He took on Jogi and kept the Congress relevant in the state. But by indulging in such tactics (sex CDs and conspiring in ticket distribution), he damaged his position and it is beyond repair now. The Congress leadership is aware of all this," a former Congress spokesperson said.