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Thursday, August 05, 2021

Congress face in Himachal, six-time CM Virbhadra Singh dies at 87

In Singh’s passing, the Congress has lost its tallest leader in Himachal Pradesh months before the Assembly elections. Although his poor health had kept Singh away from active politics for some time, his death is a setback for the party, which does not have a strong second line of leaders in the state.

Written by Manraj Grewal Sharma , Manoj C G | Chandigarh, New Delhi |
Updated: July 9, 2021 1:10:28 am
Virbhadra Singh in 2015. (Express Photo by Lalit Kumar)

Virbhadra Singh, the longest-serving chief minister of Himachal Pradesh, passed away in Shimla after prolonged illness early on Thursday.

The six-time chief minister and nine-time member of the Legislative Assembly of Himachal Pradesh dominated the political landscape of the state for almost 50 years. Singh, popularly known as Raja Sahib, was 87.

In Singh’s passing, the Congress has lost its tallest leader in Himachal Pradesh months before the Assembly elections. Although his poor health had kept Singh away from active politics for some time, his death is a setback for the party, which does not have a strong second line of leaders in the state.

Singh joined the Congress at the age of 26 in 1961. A year later, he entered Parliament from the Mahasu constituency in undivided Punjab, becoming the youngest member of the third Lok Sabha. He went on to win parliamentary elections another four times.

In 1983, Singh was handpicked by Prime Minister Indira Gandhi to replace Ram Lal amid a political storm over the large-scale cutting of forests by the timber mafia. Singh launched a vigorous drive against the mafia, and banned green felling three years later. The ban lasted for more than two decades, and even today, forest produce cannot be used to make apple cartons in the state.

Rahul Gandhi and Virbhadra Singh during Congress rally in Mandi in 2017. (Express Photo by Pradeep Kumar)

Hydel projects got a boost during Singh’s time as chief minister. As tourism expanded, he sought to safeguard the land rights of local people by strengthening laws that made it difficult for outsiders to buy agricultural land in the state. In 2004, he became the country’s first chief minister to ban the production, sale, and use of small polythene bags.

Singh was often at loggerheads with state Congress chiefs, but mostly managed to have his way by negotiating with the party high command. In 2017, he threatened to boycott the elections over differences with state Congress chief Sukhwinder Sukhu, and ultimately had his way with Rahul Gandhi.

Singh was repeatedly accused of not allowing new leaders to emerge. He had several detractors in the state Congress, one of whom, Major Vijai Singh Mankotia, caused him significant embarrassment by releasing a recording of purported conversations about the exchange of money ahead of the Assembly elections of 2007.

The BJP government of Prem Kumar Dhumal charged him with corruption in what came to be known as the “CD case”, but the CBI gave Singh a clean chit in 2012, just before his re-election as CM.

Virbhadra Singh with Narendra Modi in New Delhi in 2016. (Express photo)

In 2015, however, the CBI filed a case against Singh and his wife Pratibha Singh, the former MP from Mandi, in a case of disproportionate assets. The couple was chargesheeted in the case in 2019.

During the 2017 election campaign, Singh declared at a rally that he was pitted directly against Prime Minister Narendra Modi. “Woh mera wajood mitana chahte hain, (He wants to finish my existence),” he said.

On Thursday, Modi posted on Twitter: “Shri Virbhadra Singh Ji had a long political career, with rich administrative and legislative experience. He played a pivotal role in Himachal Pradesh and served the people of the state. Saddened by his demise. Condolences to his family and supporters. Om Shanti.”

President Ram Nath Kovind tweeted: “Sad to know that Shri Virbhadra Singh is no more. His political career spanning six decades in his roles as chief minister and parliamentarian was marked by his commitment to serve people of Himachal Pradesh. Condolences to family & followers.”

Singh’s death was condoled by Congress president Sonia Gandhi, former Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, and former party president Rahul Gandhi.

“Popular for his affable and grounded nature, he remained close to people and brought about far-reaching positive changes through his administrative acumen. He was one of the tallest stalwarts of the Congress Party and remained a dedicated Congressperson throughout,” Sonia said.

Virbhadra Singh celebrates holi at his residence in Shimla in 2019. (Express Photo by Pradeep Kumar)

In a letter to Singh’s wife, she said: “For me his passing is a personal loss, having known and interacted with him for several years. I will miss his wise counsel and his warm and generous-hearted personality.”

Manmohan Singh said: “Despite belonging to the royal lineage, his strength was his easy access to the people. In his death our country has lost a mass leader and an able administrator.”

Rahul posted on Twitter: “Shri Virbhadra Singh ji was a stalwart in the true sense. His commitment to serving the people and to the Congress party remained exemplary till the very end.”

Senior Congress leader Anand Sharma, who belongs to Himachal Pradesh, said the state “has lost its leader who, in his illustrious career spanning nearly six decades, made a rich and lasting contribution to its development”. Singh’s death “leaves a deep void and he will be always remembered with love and gratitude”, Sharma said.

Singh was born to Maharaja Padam Singh and Maharani Shanti Devi of the royal state of Sarahan in Shimla district on June 23, 1934. He was 13 when he lost his father, and he was anointed ‘king’ in 1947.

Much later in life, as a legislator and chief minister, Singh liked to be addressed as Raja Sahib. His supporters frequently raised the slogan “Raja nahin fakir hai, Himachal ki taqdeer hai.” Critics within the party often accused him of having a feudal mindset, a charge that he did not care to deny.

Singh made the traditional green Kinnauri cap his trademark attire. Among the things his admirers noted was his insistence on reading every file that he signed, and that he was a rare chief minister who answered the phone himself.

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