Chhattisgarh chief minister Bhupesh Baghel. Photo: Twitter
It’s not an easy period for Chhattisgarh chief minister Bhupesh Baghel. He knows that what happened to the Congress governments in Rajasthan and Madhya Pradesh may soon be a reality in his state too – and he needs to be prepared, to make sure the impact is mediated. Or better still, that the crisis is avoided altogether.
The numbers of Congress leaders who will have to switch over or resign to the Chhattisgarh government is smaller that what was required in the other two state, as presently the full strength of the assembly is at 89. Rajasthan requires 30 Congress MLAs to resign in addition to some mischief in Bahujan Samaj Party ranks, but in Chhattisgarh, 25 MLAs will be enough – and they won’t even have to resign.
With the support of 14 BJP and six JCC-BSP MLAs, the government can change hands very smoothly. So the magic number Baghel needs to retain power is at least 46 MLAs. He has distributed posts generously to his MLAs – 13 ministers, 29 chairmen and parliamentary secretaries, one speaker and one deputy speaker makes for 44. He has kept two very important posts – chairman, beverage corporation and industrial development corporation – vacant. He will soon reward the ditherers.
Baghel is readying a two-pronged attack to tackle the BJP as well as his own partymen. Usually, Congressmen tend to gather under one umbrella – like that of Sachin Pilot or Jyotiraditya Scindia – and then proceed to luxury resorts suddenly. Baghel’s advisors have readied a crack team of 28 personnel who are keeping an eye on likely black sheep. This team, widely known as Special 28, is charged with keeping tabs on the movement of suspects on all sides i.e. those likely to slip and those likely to bait. Special 28 is well known in Raipur, so it may even be part of a deliberate policy. No one even knows if this is a real team or apocryphal. But it does seem to be working.
Old-time tough Congressmen who have some standing in the rabble-rousing galleries have been rewarded with chairmanships. These include Subhash Dhuppad, Rajendra Tiwari, etc. who are actually so old that they were Vidya Charan Shukla’s henchmen in the 1980s. They are useful in creating a facade with the Congress high command and its messengers that all is well.
The Chhattisgarh Pradesh Congress Committee is well known for its differences, and the All India Congress Committee general secretary in charge has always been pushed around by splinter local groups. The likes of Hari Prasad had no standing in front of Ajit Jogi. P.L. Punia is considered featherweight in comparison, and not even conversant with all groups in Chhattisgarh. Baghel is preventing such a formation within the state Congress by co-opting all groups, especially the ones who once stood with Shukla and Jogi.
A former Jogi acolyte has been given charge of handling MLAs and looking after their demands and comforts. It is a general practice of all state governments, and MLAs often have urgent constituency-related works which need immediate attention. Since assembly is not in session, the work has been outsourced. Two ministers have also been named spokespersons so that the message goes down to everyone that if the chief minister is not available, then they can be contacted.
And if the message has still not been received, then one bureaucrat close to Baghel has written a long piece on a local website about how English-speaking people are not necessarily intelligent. It has sent out all sorts of signals but a senior journalist pointed out that only one man in the entire cabinet speaks in English and connects with Rahul Gandhi. So the timing and discussion on education and intelligence is interesting. The deliberate indication is that he may be the next Scindia, and a cropped picture of the English-speaking gentleman with Scindia was circulated on social media.
All these preparations have not gone unnoticed by the opposition. One ex-senior minister of the Raman Singh government told The Wire that a new policy on coal transportation announced by the Baghel government has actually resulted in extortion of Rs 25 per tonne of coal at the barriers. Since a huge number of businesses are owned by BJP supporters, it has not gone down well with that class. Taking advantage of this, the BJP has also started a new “Bane rihis Raman sarkar (Raman goverment was better)” campaign. It seeks to compare both party governments and serves to remind people that “Congress governments have always been known for extortion and collection”. The Jogi government had also faced huge issues of extortion by a team of Congress affiliates.
But where Baghel’s preparation may come short is that he can’t plan for the unexpected nature of attack. In February, his entire close team of associates and bureaucrats had been raided by the ED and the CBI. Then the coronavirus intervened in March, and so far no one knows what the agencies found and what they have collated. That remains the most closely watched theatre of war, as it will also lead to courts and jails.
As for the public, it has been given the interesting option of selling cow dung to the government. Baghel’s advisors believe that this is a path-breaking idea and will revitalise the rural economy within no time. Farmers selling gobar will soon be able to buy tractors and pay off debts. In fast tracking that effort, a farmer collected 70 cows in a small building in Bilaspur last week. All he wanted was to collect large quantities of gobar for sale, it was not his intention to suffocate them to death. Forty cows died nevertheless. Such incidents are actually perfect fodder for the opposition’s cow protection armies, and that itself may puncture Baghel’s best efforts at keeping his flock together.