B arely three months after becoming Chief Minister of Chhattisgarh, Bhupesh Baghel has plunged into campaign mode for the Lok Sabha election. He says: “People still call me Bhupesh bhaiya.” Having cut his teeth in the Indian Youth Congress, Baghel is credited with reviving the party after the Naxal attack in 2013 that came to be known as the Jeeram Ghati massacre, in which most of the top Congress leadership of the State was wiped out. He is also said to be instrumental in sidelining Ajit Jogi and turning around the fortunes of the Congress after 15 years of BJP rule under the Raman Singh government. On April 1, he tweeted that he had sent a mirror to Narendra Modi’s address on Lok Kalyan Marg, New Delhi , so that Modi could see his “real” face in it. In the thick of addressing election rallies in the run-up to the first phase of the Lok Sabha election, Baghel spoke to Frontline in Bilaspur over breakfast. Excerpts from the interview:
You have proven your calibre in the Assembly elections. How important is it for you to clinch seats in this Lok Sabha election, and what kind of pressure is there to perform, just three months after the Assembly elections?
This is a battle of the workers, the leadership and the ideology of the Congress. During the Assembly elections, we put up a collective fight, and therefore we won. In this battle of Chhattisgarh, we secured a victory with a thumping three-fourths majority. That firmly put us in a position to win seats and this time too, we shall win. The primary reason for this is that within two months of forming the government, we have already fulfilled the major promises made by the workers to the public. Be it the matter of waiving loans, or buying paddy at Rs.2,500, halving the electricity bills, or returning the title deed ( patta ) to the Adivasis. Today tendu patta (leaves) are being bought at Rs.4,000, the highest in the country. The minimum support price [MSP] of paddy at Rs.2,500 a quintal is to be found nowhere else in the country. Whatever the Adivasis and farmers wanted, has been delivered. So the trust of the people has been restored. They now know that whatever the Congress promises, it delivers. This is why we are confident that we will get all the 11 seats.
People seem to be happy with the Congress manifesto in rural areas, especially in the tribal belt where the vote seems to be shifting towards the Congress. But in the urban areas, people are in awe of Modi and rooting for him. How do you plan to break that?
See, the workers of all political parties are everywhere. And they are the ones who spread such things, either through social media or street talk. The ordinary voter here is in favour of the Congress. It is not true that we have not won urban seats. We have won in Sarguja, Jagdalpur, Raipur and Durg. Only in Nandgaon [Rajnandgaon] and Raipur South, we are a little behind. In Bilaspur also, we have won. In all the other seats, including Raigarh and Korba, we have won. Which is why I don’t think that urban voters will shift to the other side.
But this is also true that the “ Gareebi pe vaar bahattar hajar ” [Striking poverty with Rs.72,000] slogan will turn out to be a game changer. The way debt relief became useful for us, similarly, this slogan will also work for us. With the help of this slogan and with people’s trust having been restored, there is no way that we will not win seats in urban areas.
Ajit Jogi is not contesting the election this time, but how much of a spoilsport will he prove for the Congress?
After contesting the 2018 election, [Ajit] Jogi was talking about forming the government. He was saying there would be a hung Assembly and he would make the government. But when the results came, the public’s will was apparent. They did not want a hung Assembly; they voted en masse for the Congress. Both Jogi and Raman Singh were demolished in one go. This was done by the people. We just put forward an idea, which the public accepted. People who went to the Janta Congress Chhattisgarh earlier belonged to the Congress and are now returning to the fold in huge numbers. The voters are also shifting. Since Jogi is himself not contesting, that attraction of the workers has also vanished. There is nothing left to strategise. The voters who had shifted from us and gone there will return back to us.
How will the Congress rule in Chhattisgarh be different from the BJP’s as far as displacement of tribal people from their lands for corporate projects is concerned?
As far as land acquisition is concerned, we have implemented the Bill that was passed in 2013 [Right to Fair Compensation and Transparency in Land Acquisition, Rehabilitation and Resettlement Act]. Last time, the government had spoken about doubling the rate at which land is acquired. This time, we have amended that and the Vidhan Sabha passed it. We will give four times the rate on whatever land acquisition has taken place since the day it was passed to date.
What is the status of the Patrakar Suraksha Kanoon (Law for the protection of journalists)? What do you have to say about the illegal arrests that took place in the State? Many people during the BJP rule, including human rights activists, were branded as Naxalites and harassed. What will you do about that?
For both the issues, we have formed committees which have been given legislative status. We have formed a committee under Supreme Court (Retd) Justice A.K. Patnaik so that whoever has been arrested under the pretext of being seditious or Naxalite can get justice. Today the innocent Adivasis don’t even fight their own battles. They don’t even know why they are incarcerated. For such people, their case studies will be submitted to us, on the basis of which we will take a decision.
We have also formed a committee for Patrakar Suraksha Kanoon [under Supreme Court (retd) Justice Aftab Alam]. Reporters were arrested for merely asking questions. The political leaders would openly threaten them or ask them if they were “Congressi”. The people holding the highest offices of governance used such language. Many journalists were killed in Chhattisgarh, some were sent to jail. A journalist from here [Bilaspur], [Sushil] Pathak, was also killed, and his killers have not been arrested yet. These are serious matters. If you weaken the fourth pillar of democracy, then it will weaken democracy itself.
You say that you have “fixed” former Inspector General of Bastar S.R.P. Kalluri. But human rights organisations are not happy.
I am not governing for [the sake of] anybody’s happiness. Kalluri gave me the worst threat; he told me that if I went to Bastar, then Jeeram 2 would take place. If I work from the intention of revenge, then I would not have taken up this responsibility [Chief Ministership]. The question is, how was the person who had become such a big irritant to Raman Singh made to meet the Prime Minister by breaking all protocol? To probe the NAN scam [multi-crore PDS scam] in which allegations were levied against Raman Singh and his wife, we chose his most trusted associate. It was after that that he started protesting. So why see this only from one angle?
Kalluri was not posted in the field. If it was the field, he could have been given the post of IG and posted in either Sarguja, Raipur or Bastar. We have given him Transport. That department is no longer what it used to be. All the barriers have been opened, so it is no longer malaidaar [lucrative].
After all, I have to keep him in some post or the other. How many officers do we have? If we put everybody in their place, then how will we work?