Chhattisgarh Health Minister T S Singh Deo: If your potential itself is not met, you think if there is any point contesting. I need to be able to deliver something’

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A long-time Congress leader, 70-year-old Singh Deo had hoped to become chief minister when the party won the elections in 2018. As the next elections draw near, Bhupesh Baghel looks more entrenched as CM than ever, with Singh Deo occasionally expressing his unhappiness, such as when he said recently that he does not feel like contesting again, though would not desert the Congress, “nor join the BJP”. Singh Deo speaks about his long association with the party and his expectations from it. Excerpts:

 How do you see your future in the Congress?

Singh Deo: That is for the leadership to decide. The leadership gives roles. You have the choice to see if it’s suitable for you or not.

But you are among the senior-most leaders of the Congress…

Singh Deo: We have always gone by the decisions of the high command… If there is any responsibility the high command wants to give you, it is through consultation. You may have some aspirations which are known to the high command like contesting elections or wanting some post… My family has been with the Congress since pre-Independence and since 1952, members of my family have been getting tickets….

It is said you were promised the CM seat after two-and-a-half years as part of a rotational arrangement with Baghel.

Singh Deo: I cannot say anything about promises. Four of us, Charan Das Mahant (now Speaker), Tamradhwaj Sahu (now Home Minister), Baghel and I, were called to Delhi and we had consultations individually for two days with Rahul Gandhi and Sonia Gandhi. Eventually, the CM name was announced. In the media there has been this constant talk of an arrangement, time-sharing. Many things are discussed behind closed doors, one must maintain the sanctity of these conversations.

You recently said you will not go with the BJP as it does not suit your ideology, and earlier that you do not feel like contesting elections anymore but would decide after talking to well-wishers.

Singh Deo: I have not taken a call not to fight yet. That is what I meant by having a final discussion with people with whom I have been associated as a Congress leader for a long time, around 45 years… naturally one feels that responsibility before I take any call.

… (But) As things stand, I am frankly not inclined to contest again. Being a public representative is not at all easy, it’s increasingly becoming extremely difficult to look after one’s constituency. The challenges are immense, with mobiles reaching every hand… You are more accessible and the expectations of the people are extremely high. I want to feel reasonably comfortable about meeting some of those aspirations. If I cannot meet even 10%, I must think whether I should continue or not… It takes a lot of time, you have practically no family life…

What you see as your potential is another thing… If your potential itself is not realised, then one starts thinking in terms of whether one should contest or not. I need to be able to deliver something that will meet all these aspirations.

Is that a message that you need more power or authority in the party?

Singh Deo: One should be effective. If one is not effective, what is the point of contesting?

Have you talked to the party about this?

Singh Deo: I am sure the party is aware of the situation. From time to time, I have also expressed myself… (but) while one is in the party, my nature is to be disciplined. I am not one of those to openly rebel or take a posture that I am not comfortable with myself.

Do you think the Congress, like the BJP, should contest without a CM face this time. Or should they go with Bhupesh Baghel?

Singh Deo: It’s not a question of Bhupesh Baghel. Normally what one sees is that there are front runners. There are states where the Congress and other parties have announced a CM face, others where they have not, and there are states where a sitting CM has not been announced as a candidate. But normally, what happens when you are in the Opposition is that the PCC president and Leader of the Opposition are seen as front runners. When you are in government, the CM becomes the leader of the party and is the front runner. Whatever the party high command decides, but the normal thing is that the sitting CM has an edge.

Do you see Sachin Pilot, who is in a tussle with Chief Minister Ashok Gehlot, being in a similar situation as you in Rajasthan?

Singh Deo: Similar maybe in one or two ways, like there was talk in the media of both getting a chance to be CM… time sharing. That was the media perception; the party perception, I cannot talk about. I do not know what transpired with him… Apart from that, everyone has their own way of dealing with a situation. There, a senior person (Gehlot) is the CM and he (Pilot) is a youngster; here, Bhupesh is 10 years younger to me. The Congress also has a large majority in Chhattisgarh, unlike Rajasthan, where it has just about a majority.

The Congress recently selected its new president by polls. Is it a welcome change in the party functioning?

Singh Deo: It is provided for in the Congress constitution and, as the party is registered with the Election Commission, the expectation is that an election should take place. I believe in that… Mallikarjun Kharge (the new president) is very experienced and it should ensure stability (in the party), for one.

So, you have the party and then you have elected representatives. So how will it play out as to which role (they take up). Who will be the Congress face for prime minister?… Khargeji will continue to be the party president, but we see Rahulji, within the party at least, as the most acceptable PM candidate for our party… Khargeji has been elected 10-12 times, has experience, and Rahulji who is from a newer generation, with newer thoughts, is very suitable to lead the country.

You think Kharge gets a say in how the PM face is chosen?

Singh Deo: It (the decision) comes from the party for sure. It may seem like only one person is making all the decisions. Many times, it is said there is a dynasty, and so and so takes the call. But what happens in the Congress is always a deep consultative process.