In March last year, Chhattisgarh Chief Minister Bhupesh Baghel held a meeting to discuss the coronavirus pandemic that had just hit India. Not invited to this crucial meeting, state health minister T.S. Singh Deo immediately expressed his objection saying that “the CMO should have made sure that the health minister attended it”.
Many say that the rift between the two leaders has emerged in the last few months after Deo began pressing for the mid-term change that Congress Vice-President Rahul Gandhi had suggested following the party’s massive victory in the November 2018 assembly elections.
However, Gandhi’s suggestion that Baghel and Deo share the chief minister’s post for two and a half years each made both insecure since the beginning, with Deo’s health department, the most crucial since the pandemic struck, becoming the site of the rivalry.
When Baghel and Deo met Gandhi in Delhi on Tuesday, they blamed each other for pushing Chhattisgarh to instability, but he offered no solution. The silence of the Congress’ central leadership has brought the state polity to the edge with leadership change being the only talking point from Surguja to Sukma.
Health sector becomes the site of rivalry
As Deo often didn’t attend or was not invited to many official meetings, several major initiatives in the health sector have come from the CMO, only to draw the minister’s ire. When Baghel announced in June that the government would provide assistance to private players for setting up hospitals in rural areas, Deo termed the proposal “objectionable” and said that he was not consulted before the decision.
Similarly, Deo was not pleased with Baghel’s announcement of a separate Chhattisgarh portal, CG Teeka, for Covid vaccination that replaced Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s photograph with that of the chief minister on the certificate. The state’s portal somehow didn’t prove effective and it had to shift to CoWin.
Citing yet another instance of the CMO’s interference in the health department, Deo’s camp has been unhappy over the posting of certain officers, the most recent being health secretary Alok Shukla, whom Deo had once opposed in public. Shukla is perceived to be the CMO’s man sent to the health department to dilute Deo’s control.
The Baghel government also wants to shift the procurement of medical equipment and drugs from Chhattisgarh Medical Services Corporation Limited to Chhattisgarh State Industrial Development Corporation, thus taking away enormous financial powers from the health department.
All this has ensured that Deo spends a substantial time outside Raipur and the health ministry largely functions in his absence.
One can easily imagine the impact this rivalry would have on the health sector in a state that has large tracts of rural and adivasi land.
The turf war has spilt over beyond the health department. Under Baghel’s showpiece project Godhan Nyay Yojna, the state government purchases cow dung at Rs 2 per kg, becoming the first state in the country to purchase cow dung from farmers and use it for various purposes. The scheme comes under Deo’s panchayat department, but is mostly run by the CMO.
Baghel comes from an ordinary background, an OBC farmer who fought on the street, spoilt his hands and feet, the only Congress leader who stood against both ex-Congress CM Ajit Jogi and BJP CM Raman Singh, successfully led the party during the 2018 election, and eventually made it to the top. In absolute contrast, the suave and courteous Deo is a royal family scion, speaks flawless English, and has barely been on the wrong side of anyone in politics before he found himself in an adversarial position with Baghel.
In his first term as the CM, Baghel seems to be carrying forward the hangover of a firebrand opposition leader and has yet to learn the art of accommodating rivals in his party. However, his long stint in the field has ensured him the support of many party legislators as evidenced on Thursday evening when over two dozen Congress MLAs flew from Raipur to Delhi in a show of strength before the high command.
The fissures became wider as the 30-month CM chair deadline was crossed in June this year, and Deo became increasingly vocal against his government. Last month, Deo refuted the forest department’s claim that he had consented to reduce the size of the proposed Lemru elephant reserve in the state.
A few weeks later, a Congress adivasi MLA from Deo’s bastion in north Chhattisgarh, Brihaspati Singh, shocked state politics by publicly alleging that Deo was behind an attack on his convoy and wanted to kill him because he had praised Baghel.
Furious, Deo raised the issue in the assembly and walked out of the session demanding a statement from the Baghel government, marking perhaps the first instance of a Chhattisgarh minister staging a walkout against his own government.
This was Congress’ internal issue, which should have been resolved within the party, but Singh was asked to express regret to Deo before the party and opposition MLAs in Vidhan Sabha.
And yet, the high command ignored the simmering crisis. “This was a small matter. He claimed TS Singh Deo wanted to kill him. But he didn’t say this before IG, Home Minister, CM. I think he said this in a fit of emotion,” Chhattisgarh Congress in-charge PL Punia said.
Both Baghel and Deo have maintained in public that they would abide by the high command. Blame them for the rivalry, but the Congress high command has caused and fuelled the feud by first making both the leaders insecure and then silently watching a tussle that destabilises a state that gave the party the biggest mandate against the BJP in recent decades.
Rahul Gandhi often blames the media for not highlighting the various crises in the country’s governance, but he ignores that the issues plaguing his party as well as the Congress-run states owe solely to the high command’s failure.
If Rahul Gandhi wants to honour his promise made in 2018, he should immediately instal Deo as the CM. If he considers that it’d be unwise to remove an OBC CM mid-term in the party’s strongest state as it could lead to a new and unmanageable crisis in the Congress, he should immediately pacify Deo and ask him to follow Baghel. Any delay will weaken the party, strengthen the BJP and prompt the disappointed voter to shift elsewhere.
The author is an independent journalist. His book, The Death Script, which traces the Naxal insurgency, received the Atta Galatta Best Non-fiction Book of the Year 2020 award. Views are personal.