National

We Will Accept High-Command’s Choice For CM, Have Never Considered BJP Weak Party: Chhattisgarh Deputy CM TS Singhdeo

Ahead of the Chhattisgarh election results, Deputy Chief Minister TS Singhdeo of the Congress party spoke to Outlook’s Md Asghar Khan in an interview.

T.S. Singhdeo and Bhupesh Baghel
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After one and a half decades of drought, Congress had won Chattisgarh Assembly elections with a thumping majority in 2018. It won 69 out of 90 seats. However, even after this unexpected win, Congress had to encounter a problem: who will be the CM of the state? 

There were four faces for the CM’s post: Bhupesh Baghel, T S Singhdeo, Tamradhwaj Sahu, and Charandas Mahant. All these four were summoned to Delhi by the High Command. Two of these faces come out of it. Bhupesh Baghel and TS Singhdeo. A picture of the then Congress national President Rahul Gandhi standing with these two started going viral on social media with reports that Baghel and Singhdeo will be CM for two and a half years each. During the first term, Baghel was crowned as the CM of the state. However, instead of two and a half years, Baghel remained the CM for a full five years. During this time, there are also reports that there is a situation of discord between the two. Just before the elections, Singhdeo was made the Deputy CM.

There are a few hours left for the 2023 Chattisgarh election results to be declared. But before that, Singhdeo says that this is his last election and he will not contest further elections, for he does not want to contest elections to become an MLA. Then the question arises whether he is giving clear indications to the high command to make him the CM? Singhdeo tells Outlook that Congress High Command’s decision would be final and the entire team in the state would work to fulfill their decision. 

Singhdeo, 71, is a strong leader in Chhattisgarh Congress and belongs to a royal family. He had contested the election from the Ambikapur seat of Sarguja region in 2008 and had won. He has a stronghold in Sarguja region. Last time, Congress had won 14 seats in which he had played an important role. 

Excerpts from Singhdeo’s interview with Outlook’s Md Asghar Khan on November 30 (Thursday) in Delhi.

During the election campaign, Congress had given the slogan of crossing 75 seats. This is still the slogan of the party. But you are saying that crossing the figure of 75 does not seem feasible. Why so? Will Congress not be able to repeat its past performance?

Crossing the figure of 75 is difficult. However, one keeps a higher goal. No player goes out to lose a match but win it. He will try to score a century or a double century. A bowler will try to take all 10 wickets. If we get less than two-thirds majority, I will be very disappointed as we have worked a lot here. Seventy-one was before, four more have been added. Why do we think of any less than this? BJP is talking about 90. 

So how many seats do you think Congress will get?

Nothing can be said in this regard. I am confident that we will get clear majority.

Now the elections have taken place and the results are awaited. Don't you think you all had not taken BJP that seriously? You didn't expect the BJP to fight the elections so strongly? With the coming of the elections, the BJP has come out stronger in Chhattisgarh. 

I never considered BJP to be weak. I cannot speak about others. The minimum vote share of both BJP and Congress is around 30 to 32 per cent. Be it the Lok Sabha or the Assembly, both parties get votes above the minimum vote percentage, irrespective of the number of seats. The condition of both remains at a level in Chhattisgarh. When you look at the figures of the previous elections, the party that gets 10 per cent floating vote share gets the highest number of votes. However, the minimum vote share of both remains common. 

When we look at the figures of Bastar and Sarguja regions (Bastar: 12 seats, Sarguja: 14 seats), the parties that perform well in these areas form the government with full majority. The last time, Congress had won all 26 seats. Now, you say that there is competition for some seats. It appears from the conversation that Congress will not be able to repeat its previous performance in this region.

All these 14 seats have never come in history. It came last time. It is not possible to make this work always. It is not practical for a party to win all the seats every time. It is fine to have a goal. Congress has a presence on all the 14 seats of Sarguja. We can win all these too. But it is not always possible to score a triple century in real life. How many times have Anil Kumble taken wickets in one inning?

You are giving examples from cricket.

Yes, I love cricket. I have been associated with the game.

Both of these regions are tribal-dominated. Does it not appear that strong tribal candidates have not been given a chance in these regions? The way BJP was fighting by bringing Renuka Singh and your old tribal leader Arvind Netam, who has left the party.

Our PCC (Pradesh Congress Committee) President, Dipak Baij (tribal), hails from Bastar. Earlier, Mohan Markam (tribal) was from Bastar. There are many tribal senior leaders. In terms of age, they have been third, fourth, fifth, seventh term MLAs. Rampukar Singh (tribal) is contesting for the eighth time and is in a position to win. We have always had a tribal face. BJP had removed its tribal president on Tribal Day. What to talk about BJP? And Renuka Singh is not a face who is very senior. However, I don't believe in caste politics but in merit.

The people of Sarguja were hoping to see you as the CM. For that reason, they might have voted for Congress on all 14 seats. This time around it does not seem so.

There are many factors involved in this. Last time, we had contested the election to help leaders in the area move ahead. If people want to see them as CM, let them think so. There will be no conflict among ourselves. In every region, people want to keep their senior leaders ahead (as CM). So the people of Bastar will want the leader of Bastar. The people of Bilaspur would like the leader of Bilaspur. People from Surguja will want the leader of Surguja.  

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Do the people of Sarguja want Baba, that is T S Singhdeo as a CM?

Could be.

You are in Delhi right now. Is this an indication that you are here to convince the high command?

There is nothing to convince. I have never done this, not to date, nor last time. Last time, four of us (Bhupesh Baghel, T S Singhdeo, Tamradhwaj Sahu and Charandas Mahant) were called. We came to know that the high command was considering. This time we want the high command to take a decision. No matter whom the high command will give responsibility, we will work with the entire team. We respect high command. They have all the information. We receive instructions from them.   

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There are reports that in the last election there was a pact between both of you for two and a half years each. However, this did not happen and Bhupesh Baghel became the CM for five years terms. If Congress forms the government this time, will you convince Bhupesh Baghel for five years for yourself?

One gets to hear all kinds of news that do not have any basis. Officially, the party handed over the responsibility of chief minister to Bhupesh Baghel who served for five years.

You have said that this is your last election. You have said that you will not contest elections in future and you are not contesting the election to be an MLA. Is this a clear message for the high command to make you the CM?

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There is no truth in this. I have always stated that I will give my cent per cent as per the responsibility received from the high command; nothing less or more than that. 

Earlier, you had said that you were not contesting the election to become MLA. Then, you became a minister and Deputy CM.

This is 100 per cent true that at this age no one will contest elections to become an MLA but to become a member of the Council of Ministers.

The anti-incumbency factor that was visible against BJP on the ground in 2018 is quite visible against Congress now. Is that the reason why Congress had to cut the tickets of 22 sitting MLAs?

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Congress did not win the election on account of the anti-incumbency factor. Congress had won on account of being a better alternative. We did not have a negative agenda to demean the other party and ask for a chance. We had set ourselves a goal of completing a certain set of tasks in Chattisgarh. 

Why has only one Muslim candidate been given a ticket by the Congress under the minority quota?

I have not heard of any quota in Congress and there is no quota as such. Those who have a higher probability of winning the elections are given tickets.

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(Translated by Kaveri Mishra)

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