Walk into the visitors’ room in Chhattisgarh Chief Minister Bhupesh Baghel’s Raipur home and you cannot help but notice the pictures and artefacts there. They sum up his politics.
There are photographs of Rahul Gandhi and his father, former Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi, representing the Congress of the present. There are photos of Jawaharlal Nehru and Mahatma Gandhi, signifying the Congress’s past, and a picture of the Chhattisgarh Mahtari, a respected mother figure wearing the traditional green saree and holding paddy and sickle in her hands. Over the past year and a half, she has been popularised as the symbol of Chhattisgarhi regional identity, a counter to the BJP’s Hindu nationalism. An ornate statue of a cow and a calf stands in a corner, reflecting not just the state’s agrarian rural economy but also the Hindu touch that Baghel has brought to his welfare initiatives.
In an interview, Baghel talks of the challenges before him ahead of the two-phase elections in the state.
Why has the Congress not declared a CM candidate?
Bhupesh Baghel: You are asking the wrong person. You should pose this question to the (party) high command. To declare a CM candidate is in their hands. However, the party general secretary in charge of Chhatisgarh (Kumari Selja) has already made it clear that the election is being fought under the leadership of the CM.
If you have gone that far, why not declare your name openly?
Bhupesh Baghel: The answer to this question can only be given by the high command, not me. Having worked hard in the last five years, if I am given the responsibility, I will work hard again for another five years.
The BJP has accused you of failure on many fronts, such as large-scale corruption, liquor and betting scams etc.
Bhupesh Baghel: In 2020, I-T (Income-Tax Department) raided many (people close to Baghel). They found no substance in it (the charges). Then came the ED (Enforcement Directorate) raids. Now, it is the CBI (Central Bureau of Investigation). For three years, they have been investigating, why don’t they give it to Interpol?
My government has been investigating the Mahadev app issue. But why is the Central government not banning satta (betting)? Many states are charging GST on it. As for the liquor scam, they changed the policy in Delhi. We didn’t change the policy here. We carried on with Raman Singh’s policies.
Come now to the so-called Rs 550 crore coal scam. In Chhattisgarh, only one or two mines are private. The rest are owned by the Central government. If coal has been stolen here, forget arrests, why has the government not even called officials of the SECL (the publicly owned South Eastern Coalfields Ltd) for interrogation? Two months ago, the SECL gave a coal mine in Raigarh to Adani. (The SECL signed an agreement with an Adani Group company to operate a mine under a Mine, Developer and Operator Mode.) The BJP threatens that they will hang me upside down. Adani aur khadan ke beech maen Bhupesh Baghel khada hua hai (Bhupesh Baghel stands between Adani and the mines) … The fight is between those who want to sell Chhattisgarh and those who want to save it.
You have also been accused of doing nothing about the conversions that have taken place in the state.
Bhupesh Baghel: One of my ministers (Kawasi Lakhma) has already announced publicly that if they can prove even one conversion has taken place in the last five years, he will resign and quit politics. The maximum number of churches were built during BJP rule. I have said repeatedly that the believers come before their astha ke kendra (places of worship).
You have also been accused of following soft Hindutva.
Bhupesh Baghel: This is your language — soft and hard. We are following the way of life of Chattisgarh. We are getting the Chhattisgarh Olympics done and a Ramayan Mahotsav, among other things. Ramayan is there in every village. Ram is seen as the “bhanja (nephew)” here. An uncle touches the feet of the bhanja here, seeing Ram in him. This is about Chhattisgarhi culture and identity, and we are not just talking only of the cow and Ram alone. (Sant) Kabir has a huge influence here, particularly in Durg.
Last time, your first decision after coming to power was implementing a loan waiver for farmers. This time, too, the party has made a slew of promises.
Bhupesh Baghel: We have already made three announcements. When Rahul ji (Rahul Gandhi) was here, he announced a caste census. I announced an increase in the amount of dhaan we buy from 15 quintals an acre to 20 quintals. When Priyanka ji (Priyanka Gandhi Vadra) was here we announced we would build 17.5 lakh homes, whether or not the Central government gives us money.
After five years, why should people vote for you?
Bhupesh Baghel: This is a kisan (farmer)-dominant state and we have ensured the well-being of farmers.
The Other Backward Classes (OBCs) are the name of the game now. How do you see them driving the politics of the future, for, after all, you are from an OBC community?
Bhupesh Baghel: I see things from Chhattisgarh’s perspective, from a helicopter, not a plane that flies at a higher level. What we have done here is for the kisan, and every group comes under the overarching category of kisan — Adivasis, backward castes, upper classes, and Scheduled Castes.
It is said that you are closer to Priyanka than anyone else in the party.
Bhupesh Baghel: No, it is Rahul ji who made me the Pradesh Congress Committee (PCC) chief. It is he who made me the chief minister. How can you say that Rahul ji does not like me? Of course, Priyanka ji is also my neta, as is Sonia ji. Kharge ji (Congress president Mallikarjun Kharge) made the maximum number of trips to Chhattisgarh. Now I am working with Selja ji, who is in charge of the state. I just follow the instructions of the high command.
If it is decided that there should be a PM face of the Congress in the 2024 elections, who do you feel it should be?
Bhupesh Baghel: Rahul Gandhi, according to me. It is another matter what the high command or the INDIA alliance decide but he is my choice … But it is they who will decide. I am only one of the four CMs of the Congress