WITH Chief Minister Virbhadra Singh being their common bete noire, two political heavyweights of Himachal Pradesh politics: Sukh Ram, who switched over to BJP along with his son Anil Sharma, and Kaul Singh Thakur, a Congress leader, face the biggest test of their political career in the November 9 Assembly elections.
While five-time MLA and three-time Member of Parliament, 92-year-old Sukh Ram actively campaigns for his son Anil Sharma, the BJP nominee from Mandi constituency, eight-time MLA 72-year-old Kaul Singh Thakur is not only campaigning in Darang, the Assembly segment he is contesting from, but also strategising the poll campaign of his daughter Champa Thakur, the Congress candidate from Mandi who is pitted against Anil Sharma.
Both Sukh Ram and Kaul Singh Thakur mince no words to hit out at Virbhadra Singh. Despite switching over from Congress to BJP with his son over “insult” allegedly meted out to him by Virbhadra, Sukh Ram is all praise for Congress chairperson Sonia Gandhi and vice president Rahul Gandhi. “I met (party president) Sonia Gandhi nine-ten times and (AICC vice president) Rahul Gandhi two-three times. They are noble persons, but are being misled by people like Virbhadra Singh,” Sukh Ram told The Indian Express at his residence in Mandi. He blames Virbhadra for a corruption case in which he was convicted. He added that he would come clean, claiming that the money recovered in the case was “Congress party funds for elections in two states.”
Anil Sharma, who was a Cabinet minister in Virbhadra Singh government, is banking heavily on his father to pull off a win in Mandi – Sukh Ram’s bastion for over five decades. Contesting on Congress ticket, Anil (who polled 20,886 votes) had won from Mandi in 2012 elections by defeating BJP candidate Durga Dutt Thakur (who got 16,936 votes) by a margin of 3,930 votes.
This time too, Durga Dutt Thakur was one of the aspirants for BJP ticket from Mandi, which was eventually given to Anil Sharma. Anil is unfazed over any backlash of switching over to BJP from the Congress. “We have our committed supporters. When we had floated our own party, the security deposits of both Congress and BJP candidates were forfeited.” Anil is so confident of pulling off a victory on his own that he is, for the moment, over the idea of roping in actor Salman Khan for his poll campaign. Khan’s sister Arpita is married to Anil Sharma’s son, Aayush Sharma.
“The idea to call Salman Khan for campaigning may backfire. Opponents might say that we were failing to get any support and thus had to call Salman Khan for campaigning,” said Anil. Majority of the BJP leadership in Mandi is out in the field, aggressively campaigning for Anil Sharma. And with history on his family’s side in Mandi, Anil Sharma is upbeat and says, “Now only lotus will bloom in Mandi” as he trains his guns on Virbhadra Singh.
But, the Congress nominee Champa Thakur may give Sukh Ram and his son a a tough time. Mandi Zila Parishad chief, Champa Thakur is firmly entrenched into the rural pockets of the segment. Rural pockets of Mandi Assembly segment play a key role in deciding the winner. And Champa is also playing the “woman card” aggressively, telling the women that Congress did not give ticket to her, but to all the women of the constituency. She asks the women folk in villages to ensure that she wins by at least 15,000 votes.
What is also likely to make the contest in Sukh Ram’s turf interesting is an undercurrent of resentment among section of BJP leadership over fielding a “switchover” leader whose family has remained the target of BJP earlier.
It would be also a thing to watch for that how the resentment against BJP led government at centre in the traders’ community over GST issue plays out in election. While traders rue that “improper implementation” of “good idea” of GST caused a lot of inconvenience to them, a section of them feel that “personal contact” in “close knit Mandi” are likely to prevail over issues like GST on the day of voting.
The Congress is also trying to drive home the point that all the “development works” in the constituency were the legacy of Congress and not Anil Sharma, who represented the constituency as Congress leader earlier. “Anil Sharma is a BJP leader now and BJP has nothing to talk about for Mandi. I was instrumental in for a number of development works in health and education sector in Mandi. It is all legacy of Congress government,” says Kaul Singh Thakur, himself locked in triangular contest in adjoining Darang constituency with Jawahar Thakur of BJP and Congress rebel and former district president of party Puran Chand Thakur.
“I will win ninth time. The Congress rebel has been fielded by Raja sahib (Virbhadra Singh) He openly says he has the blessings of Raja Sahib. But, I will win as MLA for ninth time,” says Kaul Singh. But, section of electors of Darang constituency say Kaul Singh Thakur may face an uphill task in this election. Many believe that despite winning election after election, the scale of “development works” was not what should have been.