The Chief Minister of Chhattisgarh on tackling Maoism, the Congress party’s revival in the State, and his government’s strategy to strengthen the rural economy Bhupesh Baghel, the new Chief Minister of Chhattisgarh, is considered one of the architects of the Congress’s victory in the recent Assembly election. In a free-wheeling interview, he talked about how he rebuilt the Congress after being appointed president of the party State unit in 2014, his agenda for governance, and approach to tackling Maoist violence. Excerpts: What explains the impressive performance of the party in Chhattisgarh? Historically, the Congress has been strong in the State. When Ajit Jogi became the Chief Minister of the newly formed State in 2000, people did not like him, for whatever reasons. This is the first time that we fought without Jogi.
That is the first reason. When I was made party president in 2014, I realised that by the time of the 2018 election, the BJP would have finished 15 years in office, and it would have all the resources… We had lost the Assembly three times and parliamentary elections three times. Congress workers had fallen into despondency due to repeated failures. We had absolutely no resources.
We had no leadership. All our leaders — Mahendra Karma, V.C. Shukla, Nandkumar Patel… the entire leadership was lost in a tragic way [in a Maoist attack in 2013]. I brought into the party’s leadership a host of leaders between the ages of 35 and 50. In some districts, I made NSUI [National Students Union of India] leaders DCC [District Congress Committee] presidents. We observed that the BJP had turned a good section of the State administration into their blind followers. We brainstormed. The conclusion was, unless we activate our booth-level network, we have no chance of beating the BJP’s tactics. We decided that we must have at least 10-15 people in each booth, who cannot be lured or threatened. In all 90 constituencies, we did training programmes two times.
What could be the lessons for the Congress from Chhattisgarh for its revival in other States? We started with whatever we had, to launch agitations against the government. In June 2014, as soon as the Narendra Modi government came to power, in our State, poor people saw a reduction in ration cards. We mobilised the affected people. There were localities where we got up to 3,000 people to file complaints. The success of the campaign gave a new lease of life to the organisation, our workers found new enthusiasm, and people found new trust in the Congress.
Then we took up the issues of farmers. We asked them to not sell any grain, to force the government to listen to them, on December 1, 2014. There are 1,400 agriculture societies. They did not procure a single grain that day. That increased people’s trust in us even more. In this fashion, whatever issue concerned the people, we took it up and led the struggle. Some were successful, some were failures. The government tried to suppress us. That gave us the strength to fight. Congress workers began educating people on the issues.
What we used to discuss at the State level began to be talked about in mohallas, pan shops, tea shops. All sections of the society: the poor, the Scheduled Castes, the Scheduled Tribes, traders, farmers, government employees… we fought for all of them. We went to jail numerous times, got out and restarted the struggle. We never gave up. You have just one of the 11 Lok Sabha seats in the State. Do you hope to reverse the score in 2019? We are planning to make it 100% in our favour. In the Assembly we won three-fourths, but in 2019, we will win all the seats.