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OBC votebank, counter to Baghel — Why BJP replaced its tribal Chhattisgarh unit chief

By appointing Arun Sao as Chhattisgarh chief, party seeks to not only counter CM Baghel's clout as prominent OBC face, but also infuse energy among cadres ahead of next year's polls.

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New Delhi: The BJP has appointed Other Backward Class (OBC) leader Arun Sao as its new Chhattisgarh chief ahead of next year’s assembly elections in the Congress-ruled state. 

In a press statement Tuesday, BJP national general secretary Arun Singh said party president J.P. Nadda has appointed Sao to the position with immediate effect. Sao, an MP from Bilaspur, has replaced prominent tribal leader Vishnudev Sai. 

Hailing from the Sahu community, the MP’s elevation is being seen in political circles as part of the BJP’s strategy to take on Chief Minister Bhupesh Baghel, a prominent OBC face for the Congress in Chhattisgarh. 

By appointing Sao, BJP insiders said, the party is looking to not only counter Baghel’s clout and the Congress’ son of the soil narrative, but also infuse energy among cadres for poll preparations. 

The move is also indicative of another shift in strategy. Until now, the BJP heavily invested in building its base among tribals — evident in its selection of state unit heads including Nandkumar Sai, Ram Sewak Paikra, Vikram Usendi, Shiv Pratap Singh, and Vishnudev Sai. All these leaders are from tribal backgrounds.  

The party is also gearing up to make changes in the state unit — it brought in Ajay Jamwal, who was the regional general secretary (organisation) of the Northeast, to take care of Chhattisgarh and Madhya Pradesh in July.

“The BJP, which lost in 2018 under Raman Singh, also lost several bypolls. The party was exploring options to replace old hand Sai, who was in his third term. There was a need to infuse fresh energy in the Chhattisgarh unit…More changes are expected in the near future. The party may change the leader of opposition (Dharamlal Kaushik), who is also from Bilaspur and an OBC,” a state BJP leader told ThePrint, not wanting to be named.

Sao, 53, had his first brush with politics in 1990 when he was associated with the Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad (ABVP). He then went on to become a member of the Bharatiya Janata Yuva Morcha, the BJP’s youth wing, in which he served in various capacities. A lawyer, Sao is a first-time Lok Sabha MP from Bilaspur.

Also Read: Baghel carries ‘gobar economy’ budget in cow dung case, old pension scheme back in Chhattisgarh

The OBC factor

Carved out of Madhya Pradesh in 2000, Chhattisgarh has a substantial OBC as well as Scheduled Caste and Scheduled Tribe population. While tribals account for around 34 per cent of Chhattisgarh’s population, OBCs account for 45 per cent.  

“Baghel’s stature as OBC leader propelled him as the Congress’ top choice. Despite four years in power, his popularity has not diminished. We need to balance him (out). That is the reason an OBC face has been given a chance to lead the state unit,” said another BJP leader. 

BJP MP from Durg Vijay Baghel told ThePrint that the party has done a “smart caste balancing act” by picking up a fresh OBC face. “(Vishnudev) Sai was an experienced face, but the party thought of sending the right message ahead of the assembly election.”

On his part, Sai claimed that he had conveyed to the party brass a few months that he would have no objection if it felt like replacing him. “Our fight is to win in 2023,” the former Union minister told ThePrint.

A third BJP leader was more forthcoming regarding the reasons for the change made in the state unit by Nadda: “(There’s a) problem with the Chhattisgarh unit. It is not as aggressive against the Bhupesh Baghel government. Baghel is more innovative than us. It (the state unit) has failed in creating a narrative against the government. The party is serious about changing the entire organisation in the state.”

After the loss in 2018, the BJP made Dharamlal Kaushik, an OBC face, the leader of opposition to counter caste equation in the state and earn the trust of the community. However, the party leader quoted above claimed that Kaushik was neither effective in raising issues concerning the people nor attacking the Congress whenever the Chhattisgarh assembly was in session. 

Given that Sai, a tribal leader, had to give way to Sao, the BJP leader further said, the party is likely to replace Kaushik soon. 

In the Congress camp, CM Baghel was quick to latch on to the BJP removing Sai on World Tribal Day. “The BJP’s mindset against tribal people has been exposed on World Tribal Day… It removed the tribal president in a state where tribals comprise at least 32 per cent of the population. They should have considered this fact while removing the tribal president in the state,” he told the media.

This report has been updated to correct a typo in BJP leader Vishnudev Sai’s spelling.  

(Edited by Tony Rai)

Also Read: After watching ‘Kashmir Files’ with MLAs, Baghel says BJP-backed govt did nothing to stop exodus


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