Chhattisgarh CM Bhupesh Baghel says Balakot aerial strikes will not impact election results, asserts that change of candidates by BJP shows that it’s afraid in the state and explains why no one anticipated the scale of the Congress victory in the Assembly elections
RAVISH TIWARI: What is your assessment of the Chhattisgarh Assembly elections?
If you look at the time before the creation of Chhattisgarh (2000), the Congress had formed governments in Madhya Pradesh. In 2003, it was not that the BJP won, the Congress lost (the Chhattisgarh elections). Not even the Congress, Jogiji (then CM Ajit Jogi) lost the elections. People did not like his style of working. Raman Singh became the chief minister. Even in 2008 and in 2013, one can’t say that the BJP won; we lost. In 2003, we won 37 of the 90 Assembly seats. In 2008, we won 38 and in 2013, we won 39. The difference (between the BJP and the Congress) has never been a lot. We have always been just five-six seats behind the halfway mark of 45 seats.
In the Antagarh bypolls, which happened right after the 2014 Lok Sabha elections, the word going around was that if Jogiji was removed from the Congress, our government would be formed. When he left the party, it paved the way for our victory. I was made the president of the state party unit just before the 2014 Lok Sabha elections. We could not deliver then but we continued to fight for our people. We raised issues such as ration cards for the poor, sale of crops… We did padyatras, dharnas, gheroas. That is how we were successful in winning the people’s trust.
RAVISH TIWARI: In the Assembly elections, your fight was against Raman Singh. Now, in the Lok Sabha polls, your fight is against Prime Minister Narendra Modi. How are the two contests different?
In the run-up to the Assembly elections in Chhattisgarh, the BJP said Narendra Modi would be their face for the election. All banners, posters and hoardings had large images of Narendra Modi. Raman Singh’s picture would be very small. In our campaign, we spoke a lot about demonetisation and the Goods and Services Tax. I think, in the entire country, the most opposition to demonetisation and the GST came from Chhattisgarh. We did not just target Raman Singh but also Narendra Modi and Amit Shah.
As the Assembly elections got closer, our party president Rahul Gandhi raised the chowkidar slogan for the first time while inaugurating a party office in Chhattisgarh. We kept raising that slogan and also the issue of the Rafale deal. As the elections got nearer, photos of PM Narendra Modi and Amit Shah started shrinking on posters. So we beat both Modi and Shah in the 2018 Assembly elections. We have dispelled the notion that Shah is a election winning machine. That is not a fear now. Last time (in the state polls) we won three-fourths of the seats, this time we will win 100%.
RAVISH TIWARI: The BJP has decided to drop all its 10 incumbent MPs from Chhattisgarh and replace them with new faces in the Lok Sabha polls. How do you plan to take them on?
What people want to know is why are these leaders being replaced? Is it because work is not being done, or is it for getting some novelty in the polls, or is it simply out of fear? The BJP is scared after the defeat in the 2018 Assembly elections. This fear is the reason behind the change in leadership. A scared force can never win a battle.
RAVISH TIWARI: As a leader who has risen from the grassroots, what is your assessment of the Lok Sabha elections — not just in Chhattisgarh but also at the national level?
It is very simple. All that Modi said in 2014 is jumla — bringing back black money, giving employment to two crore people, implementing the recommendations of the Swaminathan Committee report to help resolve farmer woes. People understand this now. It is apparent from the election results in Rajasthan, Punjab, Karnataka. People are making the comparison (between the BJP and the Congress). We formed the government in these states. When the Centre implemented demonetisation without any notice, people thought they could battle the hardships with the black money that would come back into the system. But that myth got busted. Today, there is no account of how much black money came back. People have lost their trust (in the government).
While campaigning during the state elections, Rahul Gandhi raised the issue of loan waivers for farmers, returning land to the tribal population… and 2,200 acres were actually returned to the community. The people now see that Rahul Gandhi implements his promises while what Modi says is only jumla. People on the ground have got this message. In states such as UP, Bihar, Telangana, where I travelled, the trust among people for Rahul Gandhi has been growing. They see a clear difference between the two leaders.
LIZ MATHEW: The Pulwama terror attack and the aerial strikes in Balakot, Pakistan, have changed the political narrative. The focus is now on national security. Will it affect the results of the Lok Sabha elections?
At the national level, anyone asking questions (about the strikes) is labelled an anti-national or anti-religion… But why is asking whether there was an intelligence failure in Pulwama a crime? Our party president Rahul Gandhi interacts with students, farmers, journalists. He responds to their questions. A country that doesn’t raise questions, where one is branded a criminal for asking questions, such a country cannot succeed. The people of the country have to make a choice.
There will be no impact of the Pulwama attack and the aerial strikes (on polls). In the past too, the country has been attacked several times but no one ever doubted (former prime ministers) Indira Gandhi, (Lal Bahadur) Shastriji or Jawaharlal Nehru’s decisions. There must be a reason for people raising questions now. After the aerial strikes, some media organisation published that 300 people were killed. Where did this number come from? How did the media get this number? Is it criminal to ask this question? The armed forces were not put together in the last five years. No one doubts the armed forces, all Indians are proud of them. But the way the party (BJP) is politicising it, people are pointing fingers.
KRISHN KAUSHIK: The Chhattisgarh government was criticised after the controversial 1992-batch police officer S R P Kalluri — who was accused, even by the Congress, of harassment and human rights excesses in Bastar — was given the important portfolio of Inspector General of Police (Anti-Corruption Bureau) and Economic Offences Wing (EOW). Last month, he was transferred to the post of transport commissioner. Fifteen MPs have written to you to set up an ‘overarching inquiry’ to look into the actions of Kalluri. What is the government doing about it?
Of all people, I have been the most opposed to him. The question here is not about the official but the government’s vision and intention. Secondly, when he is in the EOW, he is not in the field. When he was IG, he was.
Also, he was believed to be very close to Raman Singh. When our government came to power, we gave him a responsible role so that the BJP doesn’t accuse us of playing politics of revenge. Now, transport is not a department where one can earn money (illegally). In a way, it’s a punishment posting. He has been posted there. We have also set up a committee to investigate all allegations against him. Action will be taken as per their report.
HARISH DAMODARAN: Your government announced a sharp hike in minimum support price (MSP) of paddy to Rs 2,500/quintal from Rs 1,750/quintal. How sustainable is this? Also, why is your party not highlighting this and instead talking about chowkidar, Rafale etc?
Our party president has been talking about both the issues. I have travelled with Rahul Gandhi to Odisha twice, and on both occasions he spoke about the MSP being raised in Chhattisgarh. If it has not been spoken of in the national media, I cannot comment on it. Rahulji has been constantly speaking on the issue… We have made the payments. Every farmer has got Rs 2,500. It has been implemented 100%. You can check with the farmers.
RAHUL TRIPATHI: Naxalism has been a challenge for both the UPA and NDA governments. Both sides have focused on security while dealing with the issue, but the challenge remains. Do you think it’s time to change the strategy and explore methods such as dialogue?
The issue has not remained the same, it has grown over the years. When Chhattisgarh was formed, it (Naxalism) was only limited to three districts. Now it has spread to 14 districts. The more forces have been deputed, the more Naxalism has grown. This shows that the more guns you send, the more this problem will spread. Gun is not the answer.
I am not saying that we should speak directly to Naxals. The victims (of Naxalism) include Adivasis, traders, local journalists, those working in local social groups. We have to speak to all of them. We will speak to everyone affected and that is how we will get effective solutions. After talking to these people, and taking into consideration the points that emerge from the talks, I will take things forward. A bullet for a bullet, and a gun for a gun, that solution does not work.
RAVISH TIWARI: The BJP claims the Congress is soft on Naxalism. Even within UPA-II, there was difference in opinion on Operation Green Hunt (against Naxalites). What directive have you got from the party high command now?
Through this interview, I want to ask the BJP a few questions. We have lost leaders such as Mahendra Karma in the struggle against Naxalism. Nand Kumar Patel, Vidya Charan Shukla, they had all fought against Naxals. We have lost a lot and there is no need to clarify on our position vis-a- vis Maoists, given our loss.
The BJP government did not ensure a fair investigation in the Jhiram Ghati Maoist attack which wiped out the state Congress leadership in 2013. We want to investigate it. There was a conspiracy. It was unlike any Naxal attack before. It was systematic killing. We enquired with the Home Ministry, I also enquired personally, but the BJP has not responded. I think it is the BJP that is connected to the Maoists. Why can’t they conduct an inquiry? They have the power to do so for such killings.
RAVISH TIWARI: Before the Assembly elections, there was a push for coalition with Mayawati’s BSP, even in Madhya Pradesh and Rajasthan. You didn’t concede to the demand for a coalition. Now, with a few weeks to go for the Lok Sabha elections, is there a need for coalitions or should the Congress fight alone?
In Chhattisgarh, we were discussing the need for coalitions before the (Assembly) elections. The BJP was in the state for 15 years, so we needed a strategic plan. But the BSP demanded a lot and kept shifting its stance. I understand that Ajit Jogi (Janata Congress Chhattisgarh) and the BSP’s coalition was due to the Enforcement Directorate and CBI. Perhaps the same story played out in UP too.
KARISHMA MEHROTRA: The Comptroller and Auditor General is probing what was pegged as the world’s largest mobile distribution scheme under the Raman Singh government. What aspects of the scheme are under investigation?
Firstly, it was a ploy to win elections. They wanted to distribute 55 lakh mobile phones in an area without network, and without any plan to disburse the phones. In Naxal-affected areas, there is not even electricity. The phones can be used to play songs but then the people will have to go to the neighbouring villages to charge their phones. We also opposed the use of local resources to install towers worth Rs 600 crore. How can local panchayat funds be used for this? We raised the question in the Vidhan Sabha.
Also, why weren’t BSNL towers installed, why did they put up Jio towers? We have recalled 10 lakh mobile phones. We are asking the company to take it back. The CAG is now looking into the matter. Why should government money be given to private firms, especially when we have BSNL? When we ask them for an inquiry, they say it’s vendetta politics. The phones have the NaMo and Raman apps pre-installed on them. It’s wrong. Had there been a PM, PMO or CMO app, it was understandable.
VANDITA MISHRA: You said that the Modi-Shah machine has been stopped in Chhattisgarh. But in MP and Rajasthan, the Congress did not perform as well as it expected to.
Rajasthan was the most surprising and the Central leadership is assessing the results. I think Delhi underestimated Chhattisgarh, both the media and political experts. We didn’t have big leaders like in MP and Rajasthan. Delhi didn’t know anyone other than Jogi. We mobilised our workers, fought on issues that affected people… It was a people versus the government fight.
RAVISH TIWARI: What do you make of the language being used by leaders in political campaigns. The Congress president has called the PM a ‘thief’.
Rahul Gandhi has never called the PM a thief. He has said ‘chowkidar chor hai.’ Those who consider themselves chowkidars but loot the nation are thieves. Vijay Mallya, Nirav Modi, Lalit Modi, how did they all escape? If you are a chowkidar, do chowkidari. No one called you a chowkidar, you did that on your own. On social media, have you seen the language used by the BJP workers against Jawaharlal Nehru, Sonia Gandhi and Rahul Gandhi? They are maligning them.