Congress high command in dilemma as Baghel scripts his own narrative

Bhupesh Baghel’s ability to set the agenda rather than react has been on display since he became Chief Minister of Chhattisgarh in 2018, but that’s now turning out to be a dilemma for the Congress party high command, which is hoping to persuade him to step down in favour of his Cabinet colleague T.S. Singh Deo. With the State police arresting his father Nand Kumar Baghel for calling for a “boycott” of Brahmins and describing them as foreigners, Mr. Baghel has yet again seized the opportunity to remain in the spotlight on his own terms. The senior Baghel refused to plead for bail and is now in judicial custody.

Party insiders say the last word on the leadership tussle in the State has not been said yet. Mr. Deo was reportedly promised the top slot by then party president Rahul Gandhi, who brokered a peace deal between the two in December 2018. But much has changed since. In the little less than three years as Chief Minister, Mr. Baghel has built an image of a strong OBC (Other Backward Class) leader, both within the State and outside it. He has been at the forefront of the party’s strategy in Bihar, Assam and the now critical Uttar Pradesh. Sources said that it was party general secretary Priyanka Gandhi Vadra’s intervention that has bought him time for now. Ms. Vadra is State in-charge of Uttar Pradesh. Never one to give up, Mr. Baghel hopes to hold on. He had invited Rahul Gandhi to Chhattisgarh but has so far not heard from Mr. Gandhi’s office on the possible dates.

Those who have known him for long say Mr. Baghel’s ability to turn politics into performance holds him in good stead among the masses, whether it is dancing with abandon on the Teeja-Pora festival with women Congress leaders last week or neutralising his father Nand Kumar Baghel’s controversial remarks.

On August 30, the senior Mr. Baghel, a social activist, was in Lucknow to participate in a protest against the Yogi Adityanath government for reportedly not fulfilling the quota reserved for the OBCs in its 2020 teacher recruitment drive. Giving a sound byte to a local Hindi channel, among other things he said that Brahmins should not be allowed entry in villages. He claimed Brahmins were foreigners and they considered OBCs as untouchables.

The video clip went viral but it hasn’t stoked enough outrage yet to make headlines. Anticipating trouble, Mr. Bhupesh Baghel on September 5 tweeted, “As a son, I respect my father, but as a chief minister, his mistakes that disturbs the public order can’t be ignored. No one is above the law in our government, even if he is the chief minister’s father.”

The very next day, for a comment made in Lucknow, based on a complaint from the Sarva Brahmin Samaj, an FIR was registered against Mr. Nand Kumar Baghel at Raipur’s DD Nagar Police Station. And on September 7, the Raipur police arrested him from Agra. He did not file for bail and has since been sent to 15-day judicial remand. The Chief Minister may be trying to outgrow his OBC image, or may be just trying to set a new agenda.

The Chhattisgarh Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) chief Vishnu Dev Sai, too, had to concede that the action taken against Mr. Baghel’s father was satisfactory.

The father’s arrest is also to secure his son’s future role in Uttar Pradesh. Mr. Baghel’s close associate Rajesh Tiwari was recently appointed secretary in-charge of Uttar Pradesh and has been touring around the State, training party cadres.

In less than three years as Chief Minister, Mr. Baghel has solidified his position as a pre-eminent OBC leader in the Chhattisgarh. He has flaunted his administrative capacities by publicising various schemes launched by his government. In 2019, the Congress high command promised the lofty Nyay scheme (Nyuntam Aay Yojana), assuring a minimum income guarantee programme for the 20% poor households in the country. The social welfare scheme was flayed for being fiscally imprudent. But Mr. Baghel, keen to embrace the terminology, refashioned the scheme into the Rajiv Gandhi Kisan Nyay Yojana (RGKNY). Under the scheme, up to ₹10,000 per acre a year will be transferred into the bank accounts of farmers. This is far below the Congress’s original promise of ₹72,000 per year. The State also runs a separate Godhan Nyay Yojana scheme, where it buys cow dung at ₹2 per kg from farmers.

With OBC politics all set to grow more intense, the Congress cannot overlook Mr. Baghel’s stature, but whether it can do so at the cost of the reputation of the Gandhis itself is the big question.

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Printable version | Jan 19, 2022 10:50:18 AM |

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