POLITICS
18/12/2018 2:03 PM IST | Updated 18/12/2018 2:38 PM IST

Chhattisgarh CM: Why Bhupesh Baghel Is A Surprising Choice

Many within the Congress are uneasy at the appointment of Baghel, who was seen to be isolated within his own party just before elections

Hindustan Times via Getty Images
Bhupesh Baghel at the Congress office in Raipur after the party's landslide win in Chhattisgarh assembly elections

In 2014, a year after he was appointed the president of the Congress’s Chhattisgarh unit, Bhupesh Baghel launched a campaign against senior BJP leader Gaurishankar Agrawal.

Agrawal, then the speaker of the state assembly, had been facing allegations of having encroached on government land.

Known for his aggressive nature and praised by his supporters as someone who gave his rivals reason to worry, Baghel managed to put the Raman Singh government on the defensive during the winter session of the state assembly.

But when Agrawal threatened to expel him from the assembly, the Congress chief dialled down the aggression and backed off, derailing the party’s campaign against the government.

“Had he sacrificed his assembly seat at that moment and led the party’s protest despite threats of expulsion from the speaker, he would have become a pan-Chhattisgarh leader like Ajit Jogi,” a senior Congress leader had told this reporter after the incident.

Baghel’s political career is filled with such hits and misses.

 

The journey

Baghel, now 57, began his political career as a leader of the Congress’s youth wing in 1985.

In 1993, he became an MLA from the Patan assembly constituency in the then undivided Madhya Pradesh.

He was re-elected in 1998 and became a minister in Digvijaya Singh’s cabinet. After Chhattisgarh was formed in 2000, he became a minister in the state’s first cabinet under the then Chief Minister Ajit Jogi.

Despite being a minister, Baghel remained away from the limelight.

In 2003, the Congress lost to BJP in the state election. Raman Singh took over as chief minister, and the Congress was out of power in the state for the next 15 years.

Baghel’s political fortunes mirrored that of his party. In the 2008 assembly election, he was defeated from Patan. In 2009, he unsuccessfully contested the Lok Sabha election from Raipur. Despite attempts to make his way up, he remained a second-rung leader in the state party, which was dominated by stalwarts such as Jogi and VC Shukla.

Then, in 2013, something changed—28 people were killed in a Maoist attack in Jiram Ghati in Bastar. This included almost all of the Congress’s top leaders in the state—Chhattisgarh Congress president Nand Kumar Patel, former leader of opposition Mahendra Karma and Shukla.

Later that year, a Congress riven by infighting suffered its third consecutive defeat in the assembly election. But this time, Baghel managed to win from Patan. 

Just before the 2014 election, Baghel was appointed the president of the party’s state unit. The Congress won just one out of 11 Lok Sabha seats.

But by then, even his opponents in the party were beginning to see that Baghel’s assertive attitude was necessary to stir up the Congress in a state where it had been out of power for more than a decade.

Be it the 2014 sterilization deaths in Bilaspur or the alleged PDS scam, Baghel led the party from the front in the assembly and on the streets, earning a reputation of a leader who never shied away from a fight.

One of Baghel’s first major accomplishments was to get rid of the Jogi family, which was accused of conspiring against the party in every election.

Even though Jogi was perceived to be working against every state unit president of the Congress, his reputation was such that he was feared by leaders and workers.

However, Baghel proved to be a perfect match for him.

He teamed up with the new leader of opposition in the state assembly, T.S. Singh Deo, and successfully managed to sideline Jogi’s son Amit, which eventually led to the father leaving the party.

In between this, Baghel also relentlessly continued to attack BJP chief minister Singh, a former Ayurvedic doctor who had a reputation for being soft-spoken.

“Raman Singh was on good terms with almost all Congress leaders but he didn’t like Baghel and never got along with him. Baghel also never tried to improve his relationship with the CM and continued to target him on every issue,” said a former state Congress spokesperson on condition of anonymity.

Be it the 2014 sterilization deaths in Bilaspur or the alleged PDS scam, Baghel led the party from the front in the assembly and on the streets, earning a reputation of a leader who never shied away from a fight.

Hindustan Times via Getty Images
Baghel with T.S.Singh Deo in a file photo

The scandal

Until a few months ago, Baghel had the reputation of being a loyal Congressman, through and through.

Then, in 2017, he got embroiled in a sex CD controversy, which tarnished both his and the party’s image ahead of a crucial election. In September this year, he was jailed for three days for allegedly conspiring with a journalist to circulate a fake pornographic video clip of the BJP’s state PWD minister Rajesh Munat. Days after his release, some videos and audio messages surfaced in which Baghel seemed to be discussing objectionable tapes featuring other senior Congress leaders in the state.

While Baghel denied his involvement in all these controversies, many party leaders rushed to Delhi to complain about the state party chief who seemed to be conspiring to take down rivals. While the central leadership did not take this lightly, they opted to curtail Baghel’s powers instead of removing him from the post.

Baghel was soon isolated by his peers— he had to stake almost everything to get tickets for the candidates he had backed but to no avail.

When the Congress secured a surprising landslide victory in the election, initially Baghel was nowhere in the race for the chief minister’s post.

The prize

Of the Congress’s 68 MLAs, 47 had supported former opposition leader Deo for chief minister, but the Congress leadership was in favour of OBC leader Tamradhwaj Sahu, said a person familiar with the matter.

Then how did Baghel manage to land the position?

Both Baghel and Deo united to object to Sahu’s candidature, citing caste equations and his relative inexperience. While the post went to Baghel, he may have to vacate it for Deo after half his term is over, three Congress leaders told HuffPost India on condition that their names not be revealed.

The choice has made many within the party uneasy, but few are willing to speak out in public against the new chief minister.

“Even when Baghel was president of the state unit, he was a leader of only one group. He did not understand the value and scope of his post and remained restricted to urban areas and his constituency. He still doesn’t share a cordial relationship with many party leaders, young and old, who have become MLAs in the new assembly,” a newly elected MLA told HuffPost India.

A political observer from Chhattisgarh who has closely studied the state’s political tussle said the Congress has taken a big risk by appointing the temperamental Baghel as CM.

“You will get news from the CM’s house every day now because he is prone to stirring controversies. He will first settle scores with Jogi family and then Raman Singh and his official coterie,” the person said, also on condition of anonymity.

By choosing Baghel as chief minister, the Congress may gain OBC votes across central India, but if as rivals fear, Baghel decides to concentrate more on one-upmanship than effective administration, the Congress could find itself at the receiving end again in the Lok Sabha election, which is just months away.