He is known as the ‘Raja” of the hills, a politician who wears velvet gloves but doesn’t like to give up battle and is well-known for springing surprises and political upsets in a career that began when Jawaharlal Nehru was still alive.
Perhaps that is why, against all expectation and conventional wisdom that the Congress needs to project a clean and more youthful image in Himachal Pradesh, chief minister Virbhadra Singh, at 83 years of age and tainted by CBI corruption cases, has once again won the party’s endorsement as its chief ministerial candidate for the November 9 Assembly elections.
Plus he is the only mass leader that the Congress has in the state.
Sections of the Congress party are voting with their feet against Virbhadra’s nomination as the party’s chief ministerial face. Animal husbandry minister Anil Sharma, son of veteran Congress politician and former communication minister Sukh Ram, has delivered the first big blow by resigning to join the BJP.
Only a week ago, Sharma was playing host to Congress vice-president Rahul Gandhi who addressed a rally at Mandi and named Virbhadra Singh as party’s Chief Ministerial face. It was there that the Congress coined the slogan “Jawab Dega Himachal”. It has an ironic ring to it now.
It is well known that Sukh Ram and Virbhadra were always at daggers drawn in the Congress politics of the 1990s. Virbhadra scuttled the then telecom minister’s dreams to become chief minister in 1993, for which Sukh Ram took revenge in 1998, joining hands with veteran BJP leader Prem Kumar Dhumal to form a BJP-led coalition government. The wheel of that old rivalry has turned once again.
Sharma’s exit will add to the long odds on Virbhadra leading the Congress to a second successive victory (the state has a history of alternating between parties) and becoming a seven-time CM.
This time, even Congress insiders say, the party’s prospects, are not great. Stacked up against it, among others, is the burden of incumbency, with the Congress graph hitting its lowest in the last few months over the rape and killing of a teenaged girl and the botched investigation into it, as well as corruption charges against the chief minister.
The BJP has already made it plain that this campaign won’t be a polite conversation. On his last visit to the state, Prime Minister Narendra Modi accepted a Himachali cap from Virbhadra, but there was no softening of the attack. At a public rally he described the Himachal government as “zamanati sarkar”, a government on bail, a reference to Virbhadra’s bail in the cases against him, and extended that description to include the whole Congress leadership.
Last Friday, a day after the announcement of the Himachal election dates, the ED attached Virbhadra properties, worth Rs 5.6 crore, in a money laundering case against him. The corruption charges against Virbhadra will restrict the Congress’ chances of mining allegations against Amit Shah’s son Jay Shah, but infighting in the Congress has already hobbled the campaign. Virbhadra and PCC president Sukhwinder Sukhu have been at odds and have never shared a stage. And the party has no resources to match the BJP’s high profile campaign and their booth level management.
But the BJP too is not free of problems. Right now, the party is split between Prem Kumar Dhumal, a former CM and a grounded leader, and Union health minister J P Nadda. The 73-year-old Dhumal enjoys a mass base across the state, including in the mid-Himachal belt of Hamirpur, Una, Mandi ,Bilaspur and parts of Kangra and Shimla. Nadda, on the other hand, is well-entrenched in the party’s top hierarchy but wants to return to state politics to head the next government should BJP returning to power. He has been frequently touring the state, wooing BJP cadres and getting new projects for Himachal Pradesh.
The BJP has so far avoided the issue of naming a chief ministerial candidate, like it did in Haryana, UP and Uttrakhand, and is giving all indication of making this a Modi campaign. Virbhadra Singh, of course, seems supremely confidence, dismissing the corruption cases against him by saying that he is being politically framed and claiming that no one can write him off not only because he has been around so long. If the Prime Minister is facing rough weather even in Gujarat, his home state, Virbhadra is saying, the Modi factor cannot be all that it is cracked up to be.
The sitting chief minister is also banking on the fallout of GST and demonetisation. Traders in districts like Mandi, Kullu, Nahan ,Una, Kanga and Bilaspur, besides Shimla, are openly resentful of GST.
But whether this is enough to offset Virbhadra Singh’s record of the last five years remains to be seen. His government has been described as one of “retired, tired and hired” officers. The BJP has leveled charges of “mafia raj” against it. According to Dhumal, there is a “forest mafia, drug mafia, land mafia, liquor mafia, timber mafia, mining mafia and transfer mafia” at work in the state under the eyes of the government.
Plus there was the gruesome murder and rape of a teenage school girl at Kotkhai, and a related custodial death of a suspect Suraj Singh, and the arrest of eight police officers for Suraj Singh’s death. The CBI is now investigating the case. The Chief Minister ‘s decision to contest from Theog, a constituency just next to Kotkhai, is certain to revive the issue.
To divert the focus, the Congress wants to make development the poll issue, and will take up national issues like demonetistion, GST, inability to create jobs, price rise and denial of funds to the state. But its’ slogan “Jawab Dega Himachal” certainly seems defensive when compared to the BJP’s “Hisab Mange Himachal.”
Virbhadra Singh is of course fighting hard not just for the Congress or to win a second term in power, but to ensure that his son Vikramaditya Singh gets a solid leg up in the party hierarchy. The HP Youth Congress president is making his poll debut from his father’s long-standing Shimla (Rural)—a constituency Virbhadra gave up for him to step into his shoes.