The Congress in Himachal may have anti-incumbency winds in its sails, but it’s still feeling the absence of a towering local leader to helm its ship to harbour. More specifically, it’s missing Virbhadra Singh, the six-time chief minister who was also a nine-time MLA, four-time MP, three-time Union minister and four-time state party chief, who passed away on July 8 last year.
On the other hand, the always more nimble-footed BJP has indicated that it might stick with incumbent Chief Minister Jai Ram Thakur.
With a few contenders already jostling for the post of CM, the Congress has not been able to name a clear frontrunner. The three contenders include sitting MP Pratibha Singh, the wife of Virbhadra Singh, Leader of Opposition in the Himachal Assembly Mukesh Agnihotri, and the party’s campaign committee in-charge, Sukhwinder Singh Sukhu. The party has been quiet on not declaring a CM candidate, as it may open a can of worms for the outfit.
With the AICC’s presence also negligible, the candidates have virtually been left on their own to handle their campaign. In the midst of his Bharat Jodo Yatra, Rahul Gandhi won’t be canvassing in the poll-bound state. AICC general secretary Priyanka Gandhi Vadra, who has addressed a few rallies, will mark the start of her campaign in Himachal from Nagrota Bagwan in Kangra, the state’s largest district, where she will address a meeting for the party’s nominee, Raghubir Singh Bali.
Sources said that with the party out of power at the Centre for two terms, and in Himachal for the last five years, there is a dearth of resources. “Candidates have been asked to fend for themselves, both in terms of resources and the campaign. They have been asked not to create any controversy that can upset the party’s applecart,” a Congress leader said, on condition of anonymity.
The Congress is also facing an aggressive BJP campaign, which is targeting it for the absence of a central leadership and for its dynasty politics. They are calling it a “Ma-Beta” party at the Centre and in Himachal.
Union Home Minister Amit Shah, who was canvassing in Himachal on Tuesday and Wednesday, mocked the Congress for not being able to name its CM candidate. He said there were at least eight contenders for the post.
In Kangra district, the BJP hit the Congress by poaching its sitting MLA from the Kangra segment, Pawan Kajal, whom they nominated as their candidate. Kajal is known for his personal connect in the constituency.
In Sullah constituency, Congress candidate Jagdish Singh Sapehia is facing rebellion within the ranks, with former party MLA Jagjiwan Paul contesting as an Independent. Paul is a two-time Congress MLA from Sullah who had lost to the BJP’s Parmar in 2017. An OBC leader, he claims to have strong support among the OBC and SC communities. The party has two more rebels in the fray: Sushil Kumar in Jaisinghpur and Mukesh Thakur in Jaswan Pragpur, both in Kangra district. All three rebels were recently thrown out of the party.
In six out of 15 segments of Kangra, the party is on the defensive for having fielded sons of former ministers and MLAs. There is former minister Sat Mahajan’s son Ajay Mahajan in Nurpur, former minister Sujan Singh Pathania’s son Bhawani Singh Pathania in Fatehpur, and former minister G.S. Bali’s son R.S. Bali in Nagrota Bagwan. Ashish Butail, its candidate in Palampur, is son of former minister BBL Butail. In Jaisinghpur, Yadwinder Goma is a former MLA’s son. In Dharamshala, former minister Sudhir Sharma is the son of a former minister Sant Ram.
The party is depending on the promise of bringing back the Old Pension Scheme (OPS) to state government employees. It is also playing up the existing anger on the Centre’s Agniveer scheme, and its failure to curb inflation. With the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) failing to make inroads in the state, it does not fear division of anti-incumbency votes.
R.S. Bali, the Nagrota Bagwan nominee, said every election is different. “It is not that the BJP was elected in all states. They formed the government by proxy in many. It is an undemocratic process,” he said.
He added that the party was in a comfortable position, as the people are tired of inflation. “There are several other issues too. They [the BJP] have not done any work locally as well. The people remember the works done during our regime.”