New Delhi: The elevation of Tribhuvaneshwar Saran Singhdeo to the post of Deputy Chief Minister of Chhattisgarh last week signalled the end — at least optically — of a long-standing factional feud in the state Congress.
After the 2018 state polls, the 70-year-old Congress leader’s tiff with Chhattisgarh Chief Minister Bhupesh Baghel over the top post has manifested in various ways.
Last year, Singhdeo, known as the Maharaja of Ambikapur, opposed the Hasdeo Arand coal mining project for which the state government had granted approval for felling of trees on forest land. He represents Ambikapur assembly constituency that falls in the Sarguja district.
In July last year, he quit as Panchayati Raj and Rural minister over non-allocation of funds under the PM Awas Yojana in one of the villages of his constituency. The Ambikapur MLA currently holds four other portfolios — health and family welfare, medical education, twenty point implementation, and commercial tax (GST) departments.
In December last year, Singhdeo said that he may not be contesting polls again. However, that seems to have changed after the 28 June announcement.
Elections to the 90-member assembly are due to be held later this year.
In a freewheeling interview with ThePrint, he says that he will consider contesting if he gets a ticket but will not throw his hat in the ring to be CM after what he has experienced.
He also says that he will hold his silence on whether a two-and-a-half-year formula was agreed upon in 2018 when the Congress won Chhattisgarh and Baghel was made CM. Edited Excerpts:
You surprised us all by going skydiving at the age of 70. But what surprised us more is when in a night-time announcement by the All India Congress Committee (AICC), you were declared deputy chief minister. How did it happen?
As far as skydiving is concerned, it is something I have wanted to do for years. The opportunity hadn’t come up. In fact, after Australia, I did a second dive in New Zealand.
As far as the deputy chief minister’s post is concerned, we had a meeting for Chhattisgarh regarding the strategy for the upcoming elections. After the meeting, there was a meeting with Rahul [Gandhi] ji and [Mallikarjun] Kharge ji and there one thing led to another. Then we again had a meeting with Kharge ji in the evening at his residence. It is there that this (proposal) was formally put up. Once the high command has taken a call… For example, this two-and-a-half years thing has been in the media for a considerable period of time…
On record, did that happen or not?
I still need to keep mum on that (laughs). It is because the high command has not said anything. The senior Congress leadership has not said anything. So, it is not proper on my part to say anything. But this thing (deputy CM-ship) came up. And if the high command is taking a call, then you abide by it. So, it brings to a close the chief minister issue.
The deputy CM has no direct authority to do anything. You don’t sign files as a deputy CM. You get protocols. I didn’t have it in my mind that now when I’m going through screening at airports, my mobile doesn’t have to be screened. There is some respect, I suppose, that goes with it. So long as it translates on the ground, it can help the party. My responsibility will be to carry everybody along.
The BJP is making your elevation a political issue and pitting other Congress leaders in the state against you. They’re saying that other leaders, like Tamradhwaj Sahu, were overlooked to make you Deputy CM.
There’s no factionalism (in the Congress). There is as much factionalism as there is anywhere. I won’t go into obvious denials.
The issue of CM came up after the elections in 2018. The results were announced on 11 December, and on 14 December we were asked to come to Delhi. Four of us went. Charan Das Mahant, Tamradhwaj Sahu, Bhupesh Baghel and myself. Then we realised that it was probably a choice between the four of us to be CM. Since then, this (talks of factionalism) has been there.
Before the elections, we fought without a declared CM face. And we tried to position ourselves in our areas to draw support by saying to people that their guy might get responsibilities.
But such aspirations should not lead to any of us cutting each other. That is important, politically. These names keep coming up. But my attempt even then was to see that these negative aspects be as minimal as possible so that we can get the largest possible number of seats. There would be more who may feel that they could be considered as CM candidates. That’s okay as long as it doesn’t become negative.
On contesting polls
Last December, you had said that you may not be contesting the polls and will consult with your supporters to come to a decision. What happens to that decision now? Will you be contesting the upcoming elections?
I suppose now if I get a ticket, I will again consult with my supporters and then place myself as a possible candidate.
If Congress comes to power, will you be throwing your hat in the ring again for the CM post?
I didn’t even last time. I would not like to throw my hat in the ring ever. Particularly after this experience. I’m not comfortable with seeking posts. It is all for the high command to decide.
Why did you say you didn’t want to contest?
I was not seeing a role positive enough for myself to contribute as a team member. I didn’t want to be a hang-around team member. I should be delivering for my team by fielding, catching, batting, and bowling well. Unless I’m able to realise a minimum potential, I would not want to be a part of the team. Being considered to be part of the team is one thing but wanting to be part of the team… If I’m seeing that I will have to bat at no. 11, then what is the point?
And that has changed now?
I feel so. This responsibility earmarks you for something.
On BJP and Rahul vs Modi
There’s this perception that the Baghel government has not left much for the BJP in Chhattisgarh. From Ram to cow, everything has been appropriated. Is this a soft Hindu push we are seeing?
Congress is clearly secular. The issue is of attempting to be painted as non-religious people. The space that the BJP wants to enjoy is of the only party as protector and practitioner of the Hindu religion. That is just not so. Somehow the BJP succeeded in making secular a bad word. The attempt by Congresspersons in Chhattisgarh is to dispel that.
If you’re going to a temple and the BJP is painting a picture that you’re not practicing religion, then maybe you’re going to get your picture taken and post it on the internet. If you call that soft Hindutva, then it is soft Hindutva.
There’s largely an understanding that Congress is going to win Chhattisgarh once again. We know what’s going right for the Congress. But what are the challenges you’re facing in the state?
We went into the election with a declared manifesto — a Jan Ghoshna Patra. One of the reasons for the wide support we got was this Ghoshna Patra.
The implementation of that may be a challenge — how much have we done, how much have we not done. We have done the agricultural loan waivers, we have halved electricity bills, we have increased forest produce, fixed minimum support price, we have done the millet mission, English medium schools…a whole lot of other things.
What we have not done is what they will try to highlight. For example, we have not implemented alcohol prohibition. That was a part of our manifesto, we have not been able to do that. Those will be the challenges, to convince the people that there are reasons why we haven’t been able to do these things.
For government servants, we had proposed a number of facilities, some of which we have achieved and others we haven’t been able to. There we need to do something in the time that we have.
The BJP will try to bring up corruption. The ED is there. We feel that they are doing these activities in a partisan sort of a way. It isn’t a neutral exercise of power against those who are doing wrong. It is targeted towards those who are not toeing the line of the dispensation at the Centre. That is one of the issues they will try to rake up.
Why is it that Congress did so well in the state elections of 2018 but couldn’t win in the same states in the general elections of 2019. As a senior leader, what advice would you give to the party leadership so that that doesn’t happen this time around as well?
State elections are fought on state-specific issues. National elections are fought on national issues. In the state, who wins? Whoever is able to appear as a better alternative. In the Centre, obviously we were not seen as a better alternative. The negative media campaign, the Rahul bashing… we weren’t able to respond strongly. This initiative of Rahul ji to conduct a pad yatra (Bharat Jodo Yatra) has impacted his image positively.
Do you think this Rahul vs Modi positioning works?
He (Rahul) is our leader. As far as Congress is concerned, he will be our PM candidate. Now, of course, the UPA has to decide. There’s a bigger gathbandhan (alliance) now. For me, it’s clearly him because he’s the most acceptable name within the Congress.
The BJP tries to build on that narrative. First Rahul bashing, then comparing Rahul ji with Modi ji. That leads to a difference of about 18 per cent vote share. Now, with his renewed efforts…to present himself…as a national leader with complete intent to be involved in the betterment of the country, I’m sure it will make a difference.
You have worked with both Gandhis (Sonia and Rahul). What does Mr Kharge bring to the table?
Mr Kharge’s biggest asset is his experience. He’s able to convey a light bonhomie also. Even in his speeches he will come up with something jocular and light, which has substance too.
In the run up to the polls, what are the three main poll planks that the Congress is going with?
First would be farm initiatives. Second would be initiatives involving self-help groups (SHGs). Third, I would club youth activities with employment — promoting sports, youth culture, youth associations at the panchayat and ward levels.
(Edited by Anumeha Saxena)