T.S. Singh Deo | The challenger within

The Chhattisgarh CM’s one-time ally is now his key rival within the Congress

Published - August 28, 2021 10:19 pm IST

In 1983, when 31-year-old Tribhuvaneshwar Saran Singh Deo decided to contest the municipal council elections, his father Madaneshwar Saran Singh Deo wrote him a long letter, dissuading him from joining politics. He felt his son should concentrate on managing the family assets, instead of indulging in the rough and tumble of politics.

The letter did not stop Mr. Deo from contesting the municipal polls from Ambikapur in today’s Chhattisgarh. He stayed put in politics. After the 2013 Assembly election, he took over as the leader of opposition of a demoralised Congress party, which had lost three straight Assembly polls to the BJP.

Power is not an alien concept for Mr. Deo, who is also the titular Maharaja of Surguja, a former princely state. The state was spread over a vast mountainous area, covering the entire Surguja Lok Sabha constituency of today. Mr. Deo’s grandfather, Maharaja Ramanuj Saran Singh Deo, was the last ruler of this princely state and he had signed the accession to the Indian Union on January 1, 1948.

Mr. Deo’s mother, Devendrakumari Singh Deo, who passed away in February last year, was a two-time Minister in undivided Madhya Pradesh. “The Congress party has been very kind to our family. Right from the very beginning, the party has always reserved space for someone or the other from our family,” he says. His younger sister, Asha Kumari, is a senior leader from Himachal Pradesh.

Humble Raja

Mr. Deo says he did not have a royal or a political upbringing. He revels in the role of ‘humble Raja’. “Me and my siblings were brought up like any bureaucrat’s children would be,” he says. His father retired as the Chief Secretary of the undivided Madhya Pradesh. The family sent him to the Scindia School in Gwalior, which is reserved for scions of the royal family.

Mr. Deo went on to study History from Hindu College in Delhi University and returned to Bhopal for his M.A. from Hamidia College. Politics, he says, was the last thing on his mind.

It was after Chhattisgarh was carved out in November 2000 that he decided to step out of Surguja. In 2008, Mr. Deo contested his first Assembly poll from Ambikapur, the erstwhile capital of Surguja state. Youth Congress leader Rajesh Tiwari, who is currently the secretary in-charge of Uttar Pradesh, had brought Mr. Deo and the current Chief Minister Bhupesh Baghel together to the party. “Chhattisgarh had no senior leadership. Three of us came together to create a pressure group. We projected tribal leader Mahendra Karma for the Chief Minister’s post,” Mr. Tiwari told The Hindu .

Mr. Karma lost the race to Ajit Jogi, who went on to become the first CM of the State. In 2013, Mr. Karma, along with other senior leaders of the Congress, was killed in a naxal attack in the Jhiram valley in Bastar.

Mr. Baghel and Mr. Deo are known for their different working styles. While Mr. Deo is sauve, sophisticated, soft-spoken and urbane, Mr. Baghel has childlike energy and is blunt, aggressive and rustic. Today, they find themselves caught in a bitter fight for the top post in the State. But it wasn’t always like this. “We were inseparable,” Mr. Deo says.

Mr. Tiwari says Mr. Baghel had fully supported Mr. Deo when the latter desired to take the leader of opposition’s position. In turn, Mr. Deo lobbied for Mr. Baghel for the Chhattisgarh Pradesh Congress president’s post. “I distinctly remember Mr. Deo used to say that whenever the Congress comes to power, Baghel would be the CM,” Mr. Tiwari adds.

Turning point

In the run-up to the 2018 Assembly poll, Mr. Deo played the crucial role of chairing the manifesto committee. He is also credited for raising funding for a cash-starved State unit. It was also the first time a deeply divided Chhattisgarh Cong- ress stood together with Mr. Baghel and Mr. Deo, putting up an united front.

But the Congress’s emphatic victory was a turning point in Mr. Deo’s relationship with Mr. Baghel. Mr. Deo was no longer ready to play the supporting role.

Speaking to The Hindu in 2018, when the speculation was rife on who should be the CM, Mr. Deo said: “This is not a singles match where one person can take credit for the victory. We all worked for it. The decision has to be taken by us collectively now.”

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