The second phase of polling in Chhattisgarh for the 2023 assembly election ended on 17 November. Nileena MS, a staff writer at The Caravan, spoke to Deepak Baij, a member of the legislative assembly from Bastar and the chief of the Congress Pradesh Committee in the state. Baij is contesting from Chitrakot, a constituency in Bastar reserved for Scheduled Tribe candidates. Baij had won the seat in the 2013 and 2018 assembly elections and was elected to the parliament from Bastar, in 2019. He discussed the Congress’s campaign and the policies of its government under Bhupesh Baghel—especially its efforts aimed at Hindus, which resemble the Bharatiya Janata Party’s Hindutva politics, and its policies concerning the land-rights of Adivasi peoples in the state, which the party has sidestepped despite grand promises.
Nileena MS: All Congress leaders and party workers that I spoke to sound very confident of the party’s victory in the elections. Has a sense of complacency set in lately?
Deepak Baij: There is no complacency. All our senior leaders, including Mallikarjun Kharge, Rahul Gandhi, and Priyanka Gandhi have all been campaigning here. The chief minister Bhupesh Bhagel has been attending meetings all across the state. I would say there is no issue with the campaign.
Nileena: Farmers’ issues have been a central focus on the campaigns in the state. Why has the Congress focussed on schemes for farmers this time?
Baij: Chhattisgarh is the land of farmers. Here, farming is a strong pillar that contributes the most to the state’s economy. That is why we had introduced loan waiver for farmers and a minimum support price of Rs 2,500 per quintal for paddy when we came to power in the last elections. This time too, we’ve promised to implement loan waivers and an MSP of Rs 3,200 per quintal of paddy.
Nileena: How did the Bhupesh Bhagel government decide to focus on the idea of Chatttisgariyat and sub-national identity?
Baij: Look, it is very necessary for everyone to protect Chattisgarhiya culture. During its rule, the BJP government had finished off Chattisgarhi culture. But, after our government came to power, chief minister Bhupesh Bhagel has brought Chattisgarhi culture to the fore. Be it Adivasi culture, or Chattisgarhi festivals like Teej Teevar, our government has given [it] importance. There is a new drive and energy to preserve Chattisgarhi culture.
Nileena: Some of these policies including construction of the Ram Van Gaman Path, celebrations surrounding Ramayana and the procurement of cow dung, are facing criticism for being an adoption of Hindutva politics.
Baij: See, the BJP is not doing any work, but is asking for votes in the name of Ram. We have never asked for votes in the name of Ram and are not doing so now. Our government has started the work on the Ram Van Gaman Path including the renovation of Kaushalya Mandir [a temple dedicated to the deity Ram’s mother]. We have also introduced Godhan Nyay Yojana for the maintenance of cows. We have done these things that the BJP was not able to do in the last fifteen years. So they [voters] will understand that there a difference between BJP and Congress, when it comes to just asking for votes in the name of Ram and doing the actual work.
Nileena: These schemes appear to be working in the central parts of the state along the Mahanadi Basin, but not so much in the Adivasi-dominated northern and southern parts of the state. There is also discontent over the issues of land rights and police cases against Adivasi activists and leaders. Do you think you will be able to retain the seats in these constituencies?
Baij: Congress will perform well in both Bastar and Surguja, which are Adivasi-dominated areas. Our government has given the rights over jal, jangal, zameen [water, forest and land—the basic demands of Adivasi communities]. The Naxalites have been on a back foot since we came to power. There has neither been any fake encounter nor has innocent Adivasis sent to jail in the name of [being] Naxalites. We had given procurement price for tendu leaves [tendu leaves, often used in making beedis, are a primary source of income for forest-based communities in the region]. We have returned the land encroachment that took place under the BJP government for the Tata Steel project. We also increased the rate for forest products like tamarind, mahua and tora [referring to wine and sicklepods]. We have done a lot of work to improve the livelihood of Adivasis.
Nileena: These claims are contested and a lot of these issues still persist. The newly launched Hamar Raj Party, which is an umbrella Adivasi group, is contesting on these issues, from land rights to police atrocities. How do you look at their entry into electoral politics this time and the impact they will have?
Baij: It will make no difference. The Adivasi communities had demanded the implementation of PESA, our government has done it. Whatever the Adivasis had demanded, our government has done it. Hamar Raj party won’t be able to make any difference in our Adivasi areas. [The full implementation of the Panchayats (Extension to Scheduled Areas) Act, enacted to allow self-governance through traditional gram sabhas for people living in scheduled areas, has been a core demand of Adivasis in the region. Adivasi activists have noted that the Congress government in the state and the union government have weakened the act, despite promises to the contrary.]
Nileena: But there have been protests over the dilution of PESA. The former Panchayati Raj minister TS Singh Deo had resigned over the issue. These issues are important in Adivasi-dominates areas.
Baij: No, instead we have given utmost importance to PESA in these Adivasi areas. We have kept the doors open when it comes to PESA. If there are any aspects that goes against the interests of Adivasis, we will remove it. If there is any point to add, we will do that too. We have kept both these things open. There are no difficulties in this.
Nileena: When it comes to the question of violence against Adivasi Christians in areas like Narayanpur and Kondagaon, though the BJP has been accused of inciting violence, the Congress has failed to address it.
Baij: Look, the BJP do not have any actual issues [to raise]. They try to make Adivasis fight against each other, [to make] brothers fight against each other. In a very pre-planned manner, they had attempted to cause these issues, so that they can disturb the peace in Adivasi areas under our government. The BJP does not want peace in areas like Bastar. They want Adivasis to fight against each other and come to the streets, like how it was under their government. [Hindu right-wing activists have abused existing laws to target Adivasi Christians in Chhattisgarh, pushing these communities out of forest areas.]
Nileena: What has the Congress government done to address the issue of Maoist violence in the last five years?
Baij: Our government focussed on taking health, education, electricity, water, roads and ration facilities to areas where it had not reached before, [such as] interior areas of Bastar, so that people start trusting the government.