Still dousing the fires in its Punjab unit, the Congress is battling a building conflagration in Chhattisgarh, with Rahul Gandhi set to meet Chief Minister Bhupesh Baghel and his rival and Cabinet colleague T S Singh Deo together Tuesday. Sources said the much-talked-about rotational chief ministership between the two is the only item on the agenda.
The Baghel government completed two-and-a-half years in office in June. Sources said Singh Deo could broach the issue of rotational chief ministership and several other issues related to governance in the state.
While Singh Deo, sources said, would defer to the wishes of the high command and accept whatever decision the leadership takes, some leaders said he may not continue as a minister in the Baghel cabinet if status quo prevails.
A section of the leaders have consistently claimed that after the Congress came to power in the state in December 2018, Gandhi had conveyed to CM contenders Baghel and Singh Deo that the post would be shared, with Baghel holding it for the first two-and-a-half years. Baghel, however, has repeatedly denied any such agreement. Last month, he said agreements to rotate CMs are a feature of coalition governments, while the Congress has a three-fourth majority in Chhattisgarh.
Talking to reporters before taking off for Delhi Monday evening, Baghel did not divulge the agenda for the meetings in the Capital. “After a long time, I am going to Delhi… The meeting is with Rahul Gandhi. There will also be a meeting with AICC general secretary K C Venugopal and the state’s in-charge P L Punia,” Baghel was quoted by PTI as saying. Asked if Singh Deo would be present during his meeting with Gandhi, the CM said, “I have information of meeting with only Rahul ji.”
Asked whether he would be meeting senior party leaders in Delhi, Singh Deo, who is already in the Capital, told PTI he was not aware of it, and was waiting for a word from Punia. “Punia ji is the person entrusted with this. He is in touch with the high command. It’s for him to convey. We are waiting for his message. I have informed Punia ji that I am in Delhi and I suppose we will be told in the morning (about a meeting),” Singh Deo said.
Sources close to Baghel said “destabilising” the government through a change of guard now would be “disastrous”. Asserting that the CM had delivered on his promises, the sources said the Congress could ill-afford shaking up one of its few stable governments when elections are due in the next six months in crucial states like Uttar Pradesh and Punjab.
The rift between Baghel and Singh Deo has been playing out in the public in Chhattisgarh. In the most recent flashpoint, last month, Congress MLA Ramanujganj MLA Brihaspati Singh accused Singh Deo, who holds the Health portfolio, of orchestrating an attack on him for giving statements in favour of Baghel. Singh Deo staged a walkout from the Assembly, returning only when his demand that the charge be officially denied by the government was conceded.
In June, after Baghel unveiled a plan to “seek cooperation of the private sector for further strengthening health facilities” in rural areas, directing the Industries Department to prepare an action plan for grant/ subsidy, Singh Deo told the media that no discussion on it had been held in the Cabinet on it. “I have always been in favour of the Universal Health Scheme, as is Rahul ji. The Congress had mentioned ‘right to health’ in its manifesto for the 2014 Lok Sabha elections,” he said.
Singh Deo has complained about the rapid change of health secretaries in the state — thrice in less than a year — to finally one against whom he had written several letters while in Opposition.
Singh Deo and Baghel have also clashed over the proposed Lemru Elephant Reserve, and over committees to frame laws under the PESA (Panchayats Extension to Scheduled Areas Act) for tribal areas.
On issues set to be raised by Singh Deo, Baghel’s supporters said the CM was on a strong wicket.