Senior Congress leader and Chhattisgarh chief minister Bhupesh Baghel, who played a big role in scripting one of the biggest poll-upsets of the last five years, is confident of surprising the BJP in the Lok Sabha elections as well.
In his first interview since Maoists carried out the fatal attack on Dantewada MLA, Bhagel discusses details of that unfortunate episode, says he's willing to talk to Maoists if they shun their weapons and agree to unconditional talks, and expresses confidence in his party president Rahul Gandhi’s NYAY scheme delivering big dividends in Chhattisgarh.
How effective do you think a central scheme like NYAY will be in Chhattigarh where you announced state-level schemes such as the farm loan waiver and increased paddy procurement prices?
I am sure NYAY scheme will be most effective in Chhattisgarh because we are the poorest state in the country with 39.9 per cent population below poverty line. Ironically, per capita income has been increasing during the last 15 years of BJP rule but the number of poor people was increasing continuously. When the state was created the poverty level was around 37 per cent, but it has increased gradually.
While in percentage terms, there seems to be a rise of 3%, on ground it means more than 5 million people have been pushed below the poverty line. The picture becomes even grimmer if you consider that Chhattisgarh was 3% points above the national average in terms of poverty rates when the BJP took over. But now this rate is 18% higher than the national figure.
Farm loan waiver is a big relief for the farmers of the state, but we have to admit that it is not a permanent solution. Taking this fact into consideration, we have decided to pay Rs 2,500 for per quintal paddy. This rise in their crop price would create permanent measures for their progress. Other schemes such as 35kg rice per family, increase in Tendu Leaf procurement charges from Rs 2,500 to Rs 4,000 per sack and bringing 15 minor forest produces under MSP scheme would be helpful for the population. These state schemes and NYAY will complement each other and definitely change the fate of the poor in the state.
How resonant are issues of national security, like the Pulwama attack and Balakot air strikes, in Chhattisgarh? Could they have an effect on the ongoing Lok Sabha elections?
Although the BJP is trying very hard to make Pulwama attack and Balakot airstrike an election issue, I can say with confidence that these national security issues are not going to affect the elections in Chhattisgarh. It was a concern in the state, just like any other part of the country, but people soon realised that Pulwama attack was a failure of the Modi government. So, it will hardly have any impact.
Do you think the Congress has shown a strategic shift by appointing a popular face from the backward community for the first time? One could argue that appointing popular faces from backward communities, as Congress did in Rajasthan, delivers a more stable government. Is it a successful model and a welcome shift that could be adopted by the party in other states as well?
I am a farmer’s son and that is my real identity. I don’t think I have been chosen as chief minister merely because I come from a backward community. The Congress leadership doesn’t take decisions on these lines. I have a political career of more than 35 years and I have been working as the PCC chief for the last five years and probably that gave me an opportunity. Stability of any government depends on its strength in the Assembly and on the confidence of people and party leadership in the government policies.
The Congress has only one Lok Sabha MP from Chhattisgarh at present. Just like what happened in the recent assembly elections, could we see a turnaround in the Lok sabha polls as well? How similar/different would be your strategy from the assembly polls? How many seats are you expecting?
We are confident of repeating our performance in the parliamentary elections as well. When we were fighting the assembly polls, we were in the opposition and had to fight a corrupt government. Now we have our own government in the state and have a number of pro-people schemes to showcase. In the last 100 days, we have been able to fulfil almost half of the promises made in the Jan-Ghoshna Patra. Although we are fighting a similarly corrupt and inefficient government at the Centre, we again have very convincing schemes for the people, if we get the mandate in Delhi this time.
In context of Maoist extremism, you have said in interviews that a ‘bullet for bullet’ policy hasn't worked. But at the same time, you have shown willingness to talk to 'all stakeholders' except the Maoists. Isn't there a discrepancy here?
That is true. The history and data are there to prove that ‘bullet for bullet’ has, in fact, increased the problem. When the state was created, Maoists were there in just four revenue blocks. Today, they have influence in 14 districts. I think that it would be more appropriate to see the Maoist problem as a socio-economic-political problem too. Yes, we would be initiating consultation with all the stakeholders after the elections. But how can we extend the same offer to an outlawed group, which doesn’t believe in the country’s constitution, in democracy and which has guns on its shoulders? Let them put down the weapons and say they are willing to take part in the democratic process with full confidence in the constitution, and that too unconditionally. Only then can we consider to hold talks with them.
In a recent interview, BJP leader Rajnath Singh said intel agencies had informed the state government well in advance about the possibility of an attack on BJP MLA Bhima Mandavi who was killed on April 9. Modi has also attacked Congress over the incident. How do you look at it?
It was most unfortunate that we lost one of our MLAs in the Maoist attack. But no one can understand this pain as we do because we had gone through a similar experience in 2013 when we lost our 13 leaders in a Maoist attack in Jheeram. I don’t want to politicise it and would not like to react on Prime Minister and Home Minister’s statements.
Every bit of intelligence received was acted upon. The only thing I can say with confidence is that this incident was entirely avoidable. Had the MLA not returned the 50 security personnel provided to him, had he listened to the warnings given by the SHO or the thanedaar and avoided travelling on that route, he would have been alive today. Another mistake he committed was the announcement of his visit to the village just a day before. We have everything on record. It was neither an intelligence failure nor a case of administrative negligence.
Could you please tell us a bit about what you've been able to achieve till now and what all is on your priority list?
As I have said earlier, we implemented half of our promises in the first 100 days -- from paddy procurement and loan waiver to reducing the electricity bill by half, restoring the entitlement of 35kg rice per family under PDS and increasing remunerations for Tendu leaf collectors. ‘Narua, Garua, Ghurua, Bari’ is one ambitious plan for the revival of the rural economy and we have already started working on it.