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Himachal results: Long in Virbhadra shadow, wife Pratibha sees a chance in the sun

First to stake claim, in subtle hit to Congress leadership, says can't neglect family of the late doyen

Himachal Pradesh Congress chief Pratibha Singh (File)
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ON RESULT day Thursday, a large TV screen showing the poll results had been put up in the garden of Holly Lodge in Shimla. Shortly after noon, a crowd of supporters and mediapersons gathered under the blue canopy in the patio waiting for Himachal Pradesh Congress chief Pratibha Singh to formally announce the party’s victory.

As the crowd grew anxious, Pratibha stepped out and flashed a victory sign. Holding back tears, the 66-year-old dedicated the victory to her late husband and six-time chief minister, Virbhadra Singh. The results were a culmination of a campaign that had largely been fought in his name, she said, underlining that the importance of Holly Lodge in the state remains as relevant, if not more.

With the hours passing and it becoming clear that the Congress would get a comfortable majority, Pratibha was the first of at least three serious contenders in the party ranks to stake claim to the CM’s post. “We’ll see when the CM’s name is announced. (But) the party cannot neglect this family. This election has been fought in his name. It is not possible that you use his (Virbhadra) name and face, and then neglect him after the results. This is something that the party high command will not do,” she told the media at her residence.

Pratibha, though, derives most of her political clout from the fact of being the wife of the late Virbhadra Singh, a nine-time MLA, five-time MP and doyen of the state and the Himachal Congress. She first entered electoral politics in 2004 from the Mandi Lok Sabha seat, vacated by Virbhadra on becoming CM.

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In 2009, the couple faced an FIR on charges of illegal transactions with a deceased bureaucrat dating back to 1989. Tapes allegedly with voices of Virbhadra and Pratibha discussing the transactions were released by Congress leader Vijay Singh Makotia in 2007. After a Vigilance Bureau probe, a court framed charges against the two in 2009, but both were eventually acquitted by the High Court.

In the 2009 Lok Sabha elections, Virbhadra returned to the Mandi seat, and Pratibha did not contest. After Virbhadra returned as CM in Himachal and vacated Mandi, Pratibha contested the Mandi seat in a bypoll in 2013, and won, defeating Jai Ram Thakur of the BJP (the outgoing CM) by 1.6 lakh votes.

Pratibha lost the 2014 Lok Sabha polls from Mandi seat, but last year, after another bypoll, following the death of BJP MP Ram Swaroop Sharma, she returned as MP.

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In July 2021, Virbhadra passed away. In June this year, months to go for the Assembly elections, the Congress elevated Pratibha as state chief, in what was seen as a balancing of multiple factions.

Both Pratibha and her son Vikramaditya, who won as an MLA from Shima Rural in Thursday’s results, have been trying to build a base post-Virbhadra, building on his legacy, especially loyalty of many locals to the Mandi royalty. This was Pratibha’s first election in the absence of Virbhadra, and hence a test of her own influence and authority.

Earlier, while Pratibha was working president, the same had come under the scanner after leaders such as Harsh Mahajan joined the BJP.

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In an interview to The Indian Express before the elections,, Pratibha had played down non-declaration of a CM face by the Congress, saying that had the party named one, it would only result in heartburn. Her two main rivals are seen to be Mukesh Agnihotri, the Leader of the Opposition, and Sukhwinder Singh Sukhu, the party’s campaign committee chief.

Known as ‘Rani Sahiba’, with Vikramaditya called “Tikka Sahab”, courtesy Virbhadra’s royal ancestry, Pratibha can often be seen driving around Shimla in her red hatchback, which people close to her claim is easier to navigate on narrow roads and for travelling to villages.

Recently, Pratibha joined the Bharat Jodo Yatra with Vikramaditya, during its Madhya Pradesh leg, and gifted Rahul Gandhi a traditional Himachali cap. She promised to win Himachal and “gift” it to Rahul too.

First published on: 09-12-2022 at 15:05 IST
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