The elevation of T.S. Singhdeo as Deputy Chief Minister in the Congress government in Chhattisgarh is partly a reward for his loyalty to the party, and partly a message to Chief Minister Bhupesh Baghel who has risen as a regional strongman. Mr. Baghel spearheaded the Congress party’s comeback in the 2018 Assembly elections in the State after a hiatus of 15 years. With his ear to the ground, Mr. Baghel instinctively senses the political mood of the State, and under him the Congress party has devised a unique mobilisation model. The party won 68 of the 90 Assembly seats in the State in 2018, and in government, continued to consolidate its support base. A combination of welfare schemes, an innovative evocation of Chhattisgarh’s subnational identity, and social engineering that drew Other Backward Class communities closer to it, placed the Congress in an advantageous position against the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). The State government also rolled out a slew of schemes that pandered to Hindu sentiments as a counter to the BJP’s Hindutva politics. All this boosted the Congress, but also strengthened the Chief Minister in such a way that others in the party began to feel the discomforting weight of his expanding power.
Strong regional leaderships create a typical dilemma for national parties such as the Congress and the BJP. On the one hand they anchor the party while on the other the stronger they are, the more deviant they could turn from the national agenda of the party. Strong leaders are often reluctant to subject themselves to processes, within the party or through institutions. Balancing this essential need of strong leadership with the imperatives of party decorum is not an easy task. Mr. Baghel has created a model for combating the BJP in the heartland, which the Congress could seek to replicate in other comparable regions. But the Congress can ill-afford to let success devour it. The history of the party in the State is instructive. Under the late Ajit Jogi, the first Chief Minister of the State, the party wilted as it alienated communities and its own leaders. Mr. Baghel’s leadership was a critical factor in the revival of the party, but so were the contributions of several others, known and unknown. For it to retain power in the State, the Congress will have to hold all of them together. Mr. Singhdeo’s elevation is, hence, a first step in the right direction. There is more to be done, including a renewed outreach to tribal communities. But at least the Congress seems ready to project a united front in Chhattisgarh.