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india today insightThe Congress, on June 28, announced the elevation of Chhattisgarh health minister T.S. Singhdeo as the state’s deputy chief minister. This is the first time since the formation of the state in 2000 that a deputy CM has been appointed. The decision was announced after a meeting in New Delhi between central and Chhattisgarh leaders of the party to discuss preparations for the upcoming assembly election, due in November.

Singhdeo’s appointment marks a breakthrough in his ongoing power struggle with chief minister Bhupesh Baghel. To understand what prompted the move, one needs to look a few years back. Between 2013 and 2018, Baghel and Singhdeo were considered to be Rahul Gandhi’s trusted faces in Chhattisgarh. Rahul had signalled that for the 2018 assembly election, he would not go with Ajit Jogi as the chief ministerial face. The late Jogi was at that point the tallest Congress leader in the state.

In 2016, during BJP rule in the state, Jogi parted ways with the Congress, forming his own party, the Chhattisgarh Janata Congress. Baghel was appointed Pradesh Congress Committee (PCC) chief while Singhdeo was made leader of the Opposition in the legislative assembly. Both shared a good rapport and worked together, with Jogi and his new party their common adversary.

When the Congress came to power in 2018, both Baghel and Singhdeo emerged as contenders for the post of chief minister. After multiple rounds of discussions—including the announcement of current home minister Tamradhwaj Sahu as CM and a subsequent withdrawal of the same—Rahul, as Congress president, eventually appointed Baghel as the chief minister.

Soon after, those close to Singhdeo began claiming that it had been decided that the post of CM would be held by rotation between him and Baghel for a period of two and half years each. When the Congress government completed two and half years, Singhdeo reiterated the claim, prompting Baghel to hold a show of strength with MLAs in Delhi.

Eventually, the issue was brushed aside and Baghel continued. Singhdeo showed his displeasure in the following months, once by walking out of the legislative assembly in July 2021 and again by resigning as panchayat and rural development minister last July. The portfolio was handed over to another minister and Singhdeo found himself cornered.

Singhdeo’s supporters claimed he was being further marginalised in north Chhattisgarh, his area of influence, and his assembly constituency of Ambikapur, where officials were allegedly refusing to do any work at his insistence. More recently, R. Prasanna, an IAS officer who had been working with Singhdeo for long, was transferred from the health department, days after he returned from a study tour to Australia with Singhdeo.

Aware of Singhdeo’s influence in north Chhattisgarh and the need to have all hands on deck for the upcoming election, the Congress had been looking for a rapprochement. One of the offers made to Singhdeo was appointment in the Congress Working Committee (CWC), the party’s highest decision-making body, or as in-charge of a prominent state like Maharashtra. But Singhdeo was not keen. He had made it known that he would much rather not contest the 2023 Chhattisgarh election than accept a central assignment in the Congress.

On June 28, when Congress president Mallikarjun Kharge and Rahul met 16 senior leaders, including Baghel and Singhdeo, from Chhattisgarh (state in-charge Kumari Selja was also present), Singhdeo mentioned his discomfort. The party then decided to find a middle path and appointed him as deputy CM.

There was another reason for the rapprochement with Singhdeo. The entire political focus of the Congress government in Chhattisgarh has been on the OBC-dominated central region, where a bulk of the 90 assembly seats are. The party had not been focusing as much on the tribal- dominated north and south. With the BJP too putting all its energies in the central region, the Congress seems to be realigning attention towards the tribal regions. This is where Singhdeo is strong and influential. In fact, the Congress had won all the seats in north Chhattisgarh in the 2018 election.

Technically, a deputy CM has no special powers and functions as a cabinet minister. However, perception wise, the deputy CM is next only to the chief minister and above the other cabinet ministers. It is this message of Singhdeo’s importance that the Congress is keen to project in Chhattisgarh now.

After the announcement, Baghel tweeted a picture of him and Singhdeo, welcoming the latter’s appointment as deputy CM and congratulating him. However, in the days to come, it would be interesting to see if the state’s bureaucracy, which essentially takes directions from the chief minister, begins to give weightage to Singhdeo’s instructions—something missing so far. That would be the sign of a real truce between the Congress’s two heavyweights in poll-bound Chhattisgarh.

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