Himachal: New leader has an uphill task in hills
The rise of new grass-root politician Sukhwinder Singh Sukhu,58, on the state’s horizon, after the Congress registering an impressive victory in the assembly polls, is significant in Himachal Pradesh’s fifty-year history. The victory of the Congress in an election fought without projecting a Chief Ministerial face against BJP’s high profile campaign and slogans like “riwaazbadlenge” has some notable takeaways for the party ahead of elections in half a dozen states a year later.
But here in Himachal Pradesh, the congress move to make Sukhu as Chief Minister, after an intense leadership battle, is a clear attempt to drive the state away from the shadows of Virbhadra Singh—a stalwart who never allowed the high command to impose its choices on him. He never allowed the second-rung leadership to grow to a challenge to him. Sukhu is ofcourse an exception
His making as Chief Minister, in a way, is a generational change to prepare the party for new challenges, particularly the 2024 Lok Sabha polls. In the 2014 and 2019 Lok Sabha, the congress could not win a single seat though Virbhadra Singh was in full command. The 2017 assembly polls were a jolt to the Congress, as Virbhadra Singh got embroiled in CBI and ED cases –losing much of his time to focus on governance.
The Congress‘s return to power, primarily as the people stayed with custom of alternating government, promise to restore Old Pension Scheme (OPS), Rs 1500 pm to women in age group of 18 to 60 yr and one lakh jobs is what the BJP ‘s lost opportunity to handle its rebellion in the poll over distribution of the tickets and Chief Minister Jai Ram Thakur not becoming a vote-catcher ,barring his own district –Mandi.
The Congress not projecting any Chief Ministerial face paid off to the party as the infighting under the wraps. Making PratibhaSingh ,wife of six-time Chief Minister Virbhadra Singh as PCC president ahead of the elections was a shrewd move .This was aimed to invoke sympathy in the name of Virbhadra Singh in old Himachal Pradesh, partially in new merged areas.
Beside her Sukhwinder Singh Sukhu—who was made Election campaign committee chairman and MukeshAgnihotri, the Leader of opposition formed the face of the election. The congress did well in Shimla, Solan,Sirmaur, Kullu,Kinnaur, Kangra ,Hamirpur and Chamba barring Mandi,Chief Minister’s home district.
In Kangra— the biggest district with 15 assembly seats — gave Congress nine seats while BJP could win four, one left to an independent Hoshiar Singh—a BJP rebel.The power game eventually shifted to the congress. Losses in Mandi was one factor that weakened the Chief Ministerial claim of PratibhaSingh,where she had won bypoll in November 2021.It is believed Virbhadra Singh’s sympathy factor was not as strong in state assembly polls as during her MandiLok Sabha bypoll ,held in November 2021.
Yet, Pratibha Singh made her Chief Minister ambition clear to the party making right clamours about her husband’s political legacy. Afterall the party had fought the election in the name and contributions of Virbhadra Singh in the state. She was not wrong in re-asserting herself to inherit power.
Pratibha Singh supporters held protests in the town.They raised slogans against party high command asking the AICC observers—Chhattisgarh Chief Minister BhupeshBaghel , former Haryana Chief Minister Bhupendra Singh Hooda and AICC incharge Rajeev Shukla name Pratibha Singh for the post instead, not Sukhu.
When her arguments failed to work,she apparently demanded the Deputy Chief Minister’s berth for Vikramaditya Singh, her son and two-time MLA from Shimla rural. This too did not find favour with the party.The buzz ,however, remains that Vikramaditya Singh will get cabinet berth but Pratibha Singh bargaining for cabinet position for few other MLAs supporting her is not ruled-out.
Sukhu, whose old rivalry with “Holly-Lodge” –Virbhadra Singh’s Shimla residence, is well known as a known detractor has to bear her brunt .This will remain a major irritant for him . Thus to keep infightings or dissidence in the government under check, will be the biggest task of the new Congress Chief Minister.
His deputy Chief Minister MukeshAgnihotri,a five time MLA from Haroli in Una,also enjoys his clout in the area that forms part of Hamirpur parliamentary constituency .Sukhu too belongs to Hamirpur. How two new age congress politicians will strike a political balance in the new government and reinvest the party is a big question,and a challenge too. Agnihotri–a former lloyalist of Virbhadra Singh, was also a strong contender for the Chief Ministerial post but had to fall in party line because Partibha Singh did not back his claim.
The BJP claims that the difference between the vote percentage of the Congress, which has 40 seats and BJP 25 in the new assembly, is just 0.91 percent. That should certainly worry the congress about the BJP causing a split among the MLAs holding allegiance to Pratibha Singh camp anytime later to topple Sukhu government. Madhya Pradesh and Maharashtra are good examples to remind the Congress in Himachal Pradesh.
All in his career, Sukhu had been fighting VirbhadraSingh.The internal dynamics of the Congress in Himachal Pradesh will not be easy to handle because of Partibha Singh at helm of the Party affairs,and also being a third-term MP,apart from a minister in the government.
What goes in favour of Sukhu is his organisational background .He has risen from the ranks—serving as NSUI president for nine years, state youth president for 10 years and PCC chief for six years, besides being a students activist. He sold newspapers and ran a milk counter to fund his studies. Sukhu is known to have his own mind and a clarity of thoughts.
Both Sukhu and Agnihotri are from the Lower Himachal districts of Hamirpur and Una respectively. Their constituencies – Nadaun and Haroli – fall in the same Lok Sabha constituency, Hamirpur, presently represented by Union Minister Anurag Thakur. The BJP is seen as party of lower Himachal region and all earlier congress Chief Ministers—Dr Y S Parmar, Thakur Ram Lal and Virbhadra Singh hailed from Sirmaur and Shimla region while Shanta Kumar and Prem Kumar Dhumal from new Himachal while Jai Ram Thakur hailed from Mandi. First time the congress ‘s Chief Minister and Deputy Chief Minister belong to lower Himachal.
How Sukhu strikes a power balance in the state and placates the aspirations of his rival camps will determine his future as a face of the congress in Himachal Pradesh. Most of his seniors vizKaul Singh Thakur, Asha Kumari and Ram Lal Thakur have lost their polls while Pratibha Singh as head of the party could just be another thorn in his crown.
But Gandhis being on his side will certainly remain an advantage.YetSukhu will have to stamp his own authority and public outreach and manage the rivals within the state Congress. His becoming Chief Minister at a time when the congress has no stalwarts to pin him down is a good opportunity with a lot of young faces ,mostly in the age group of 30 to 40 years, getting elected to the state assembly.
Major uphill task as Chief Minister will be generating finances to fulfil hefty promises which the congress has made in the election to implement the Old Pension Scheme (OPS), Rs 1500 pm pension for all women in the age of 18 to 60 years and one lakh jobs. This together will impose a liability of Rs 10,000 cr annually while state’s debt burden borders Rs 70,000 cr .The large dependency of the state,which has a meagre resource base, is on the centre.
By Ashutosh Kumar