With only a month left for the Assembly elections, ruling Congress in the hilly state of Himachal Pradesh has started making efforts to retain power in the state. While there has been infighting in the party for a long time now, a recent meeting of Chief Minister Virbhadra Singh with Congress vice president Rahul Gandhi has helped it come out of internal bickering and show a united face.
In reply to Prime Minister Narendra Modi‚Äôs October 3 rally at Bilaspur, Congress organised Rahul Gandhi‚Äôs ‚ÄėVikas se Vijay Ki Aur‚Äô rally in Mandi on October 7, in which Rahul attacked the Modi government and alleged that it has failed to meet people‚Äôs expectations. With this rally, Rahul kicked off the Congress‚Äô election campaign in the state.
Despite many question marks on the future of Virbhadra Singh, who is facing serious corruption charges, Rahul‚Äôs rally sent a clear message that Congress in Himachal will contest elections under the leadership of the old warhorse.
In the last two decades, the Congress is fully harping on Singh‚Äôs charisma. A six-time Chief Minister, Singh had recently put Congress in jeopardy by announcing that he may not contest the upcoming assembly election. As there is no big face in the party who can take full load of elections on his shoulders, Singh even at this age seems to be relevant for the party. In fact, the party in the state has failed in building new leadership. Even as senior leaders like Kaul Singh, G S Bali and Asha Kumari are awaiting their turns, young turks like Mukesh Agnihotri and Sudhir Sharma have also emerged stronger. These young leaders have built good relations with senior leaders at the high command level. Interestingly, both are staunch supporters of Virbhadra Singh and whenever rivals attack the chief minister, they defend him with full strength.
Now, with Rahul having already addressed the party rally, state Congress is planning more rallies of top leaders, which also include rallies of party president Sonia Gandhi. Sources said that Sonia is likely to visit the state twice before polling and she will address four rallies covering assembly segments of all four Lok Sabha constituencies in the state.
The Chief Minister is hopeful that the party will retain power on the basis of the huge number of developmental works done in the past five years. While talking to Tehelka, he said,‚ÄúNDA government under the leadership of Prime Minister Modi has failed to address the problems of the people in the country. They have been making big promises, but now people are feeling that BJP has cheated them just to come to power.‚ÄĚ This feeling among the common masses will help Congress in the assembly elections, he added.
The Congress witnessed serious infighting in the last five months. Chief Minister Singh wanted ouster of PCC Chief Sukhwinder Singh Sukhu. However, state Congress in-charge and senior party leader Sushil Kumar Shinde succeeded in defusing the situation. He not only defended Sukhu but also managed to pacify Singh. It was Shinde who put all efforts to unite the party cadre which was openly divided between Singh and his rival groups. At one stage, to build pressure on the party high command Singh even threatened that he will not contest the upcoming election. However, there was no change at the party level and Sukhu continues to be the PCC Chief. However, sources claim that current peace in the Congress is only a show-off and internally both the factions are working against each other.
When contacted, Sukhu told this correspondent that small issues can surface in such a big political organisation and that things have been sorted out and the party is united to challenge BJP in the state. ‚ÄúUnder my leadership, party has become stronger and even suggestions of small workers are listened to seriously. We will go in the elections on the basis of government‚Äôs performance, which has done a good job in the last five years,‚ÄĚ he said. It is said that Sukhu, considered to be a staunch opponent of Virbhadra Singh, is trying to project himself as the future leader in the party; however, he doesn‚Äôt enjoy much support of leaders and party cadre in the state despite holding PCC Chief position for the last four years. He cannot even claim the support of rivals of Virbhadra Singh like Asha Kumari, Kaul Singh and GS Bali as they too are in the race for future leadership. Kaul Singh was holding the post of PCC Chief when Virbhadra Singh was made CM by the party high command after the last assembly elections.
Chief Minister Singh, who won the last assembly elections from Shimla rural constituency, is not willing to contest from this seat this time. Sources said that he wanted the ticket from this constituency to be given to his son Vikramaditya Singh, who is state Youth Congress Chief. It is said that he had conveyed this to the Congress vice president during his recent meeting. Vikramaditya is likely to get the ticket. In such situation, there are rumours about Virbhadra Singh‚Äôs role in the assembly elections.
According to sources, Virbhadra Singh may either shift to Arki in Solan district or Shimla urban seat to contest the elections. There is no doubt that Virbhadra Singh enjoys good popularity among the masses, which will help him in winning from any seat in the state.
Virbhadra Singh camp in the state Congress is happy over the Rahul‚Äôs statement at the Mandi rally in which he said that Singh will become Chief Minister for the seventh time after the coming assembly poll. It is clear that the Congress will enter in the fray under his leadership. This has also shattered hopes of the other aspirants. However, sources said that even if Congress succeeds in retaining power, party high command may ask Virbhadra Singh to contest Lok Sabha polls from Mandi seat in the 2019 general elections. There is an impression among Congress leaders that Modi may go for early elections in 2018.
(Published in Tehelka Magazine, Volume 14 Issue 20, Dated 31 October 2017)