Bhupesh Baghel, the chief of Congress-ruled Chhattisgarh state, attributes the success of the governing Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) not so much to the popularity of Prime Minister Narendra Modi, but rather its ability to “confuse” the Indian voters.
“The economic contraction and migration during lockdown were definitely issues in the Bihar election but BJP-led National Democratic Alliance (NDA) cunningly diverted the issues and brought communal hatred and lies to confuse voters,” Baghel told Sputnik in an interview, referring to the state election results in Bihar state this month.
Despite Gross Domestic Product shrinking by a record 23.9 percent in the quarter compared with a year earlier, not to mention galloping unemployment because of the COVID-induced lockdown, the BJP-led alliance managed to retain power in the eastern Bihar state last month. Political analysts have said that BJP's success in the first mass voting exercise since the onset of COVID is owing to PM Modi’s popularity among Indian voters.
But 59-year-old Baghel refuses to believe that Modi’s image hasn’t taken a hit.
“The difference of votes between NDA and Mahagathbandhan [opposition alliance including Congress Party] is only 12,768, which is just 0.03 % of total votes. This shows how popular Modi is,” the state chief emphasises.
Baghel remarked that despite the fact that BJP has reaped electoral gains from its strategy of “polarising” voters, his Congress Party would never resort to the same strategy and will stick to its message of promoting “secularism” and “equality”.
“We don't believe in divisive politics for winning elections. In Bihar, both the BJP and AIMIM [a regional political outfit with a political base among Muslims] engaged in hatred and communalism, and polarised the election in areas such as Seemanchal [a region in Bihar with a sizeable Muslim population] in their favour,” Baghel said.
“I hope people will soon understand this and shun these parties which are dangerous for the secular fabric of our nation,” he added.
In the same vein, Baghel said that the Modi government’s Citizenship Amendment Act was “against the spirit of the Indian Constitution”.
“Our stance against the Act is based on the rights given to every citizen in the constitution by our founders. We will oppose any move of this government which is against the spirit of India's constitution,” he remarked.
The Modi government claims that the Act fast-tracks Indian citizenship applications for persecuted minorities from neighbouring Bangladesh, Pakistan and Afghanistan, all of them predominantly Muslim.
The critics of the federal legislation, which include the Congress Party, have, however, expressed fears that the Act could be misused to disenfranchise Indian Muslims, who constitute almost 20 percent of the Indian population.
‘Implementing’ Rahul Gandhi’s Ideas in Chhattisgarh
Baghel said he still hopes Congress leader Rahul Gandhi will lead the party back to power in the next federal election despite doubts raised about his leadership skills because of his slump in the national polls last year. Gandhi, whom many in Congress see as possible Prime Ministerial material, stepped down after the party's poll loss.
In his new book A Promised Land, former US President Barack Obama has described Gandhi as "a student who’d done the coursework and was eager to impress the teacher but deep down lacked either the aptitude or the passion to master the subject."
However, many Congress leaders have been clamouring for his return to the leadership position.
"Our country is going down a difficult path. Our economy is in a shambles, COVID is alarming, all our neighbours are wreaking havoc on our borders (ongoing military standoff with China), jobs are vanishing and those in power are creating divisions among different communities. Only a leader such as Rahul Gandhi can save us from this situation," reckons Baghel.
"I firmly believe that the people of India will soon understand the reality and Congress and democratic forces will come back to the fore in the leadership of Rahul Gandhi," added the Congress leader.
The state chief of the central Indian state added that many of his policies had been "(Rahul Gandhi's) ideas which are proving beneficial for farmers, poor and marginal sections of the societies."
The Indian state is among a few that has been offering a Universal Basic Income (UBI) to farmers, an idea which was first floated in Congress' election manifesto in the lead-up to last year's federal election.
Baghel also claimed that Chhattisgarh's response to the countrywide migrant crisis in the wake of COVID-induced lockdown was more "humane" than in BJP-ruled states.
Millions of Indian migrant workers were left stranded at the country's highways as they made their way home on foot after Modi announced the nationwide lockdown on 24 March.
At the time, Congress leaders such as Baghel and Rahul Gandhi blasted the government for not making enough transport arrangements for the workers, many of them daily wage earners.
"We started 21,014 quarantine centres for more than 500,000 migrants who came to Chhattisgarh from other states, gave free rations to more than 5,648,000 families, gave daily jobs to more than 2,600,000 labourers during the lockdown which was the highest in the country at that time," concluded Baghel.