August 5, 2022 5:26:56 pm
The Congress leadership appointed the three-term party MP Pratibha Singh, the widow of six-time Himachal Pradesh chief minister late Virbhadra Singh, as the HP Congress Committee (HPCC) president in April. With the state Assembly elections due in November, Pratibha has her task cut out as she gears up to spearhead the faction-ridden Congress’s poll campaign – the first one in the absence of Virbhadra – in a bid to oust the incumbent Jai Ram Thakur-led BJP government. Since the 1990s, the hill state has witnessed alternate governments as no ruling party has seen its dispensation repeated at the hustings. Pratibha speaks to The Indian Express on a host of issues relating to the Congress and its plans for the crucial upcoming polls. Excerpts:
With less than four months left for the polls, how is the Congress placed in HP?
We have started work on the ground. The party members are reaching out to people and we are getting a good response. Several programmes have been planned. At this rate, we are quite hopeful of forming the government. There are several burning issues in the state, from price rise to unemployment. The people of Himachal are suffering because of the government policies at both the central and state levels.
The Congress party has had a history of caring for the Himachal citizens because of which they trusted us in the past. We are confident that people will again repose their faith in us.
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The apple production is a Rs 5,000-crore industry in HP and is a key source of income for a large section of its population. The apple farmers have taken to streets in recent times in protest against the state government’s policies. Will this be a key election issue for the Congress and what will be its alternative proposals for the farmers?
The state makes income through apple production throughout the year. For many people, this is their only means of livelihood. In the last few years, the price rise has resulted in expensive inputs and fertilisers for the farmers. And even an average farmer is unable to afford the most basic supply of such inputs needed for the steady production of apples. The prices of packaging materials have also been hiked. So at every level, right from the seed to the finishing stage, there are more expenses to be borne by farmers. Another constant demand of the apple growers has been to hike import duty on apples so that local production does not lose out to the global competition. But the Centre did not pay any heed, which has resulted in their further losses.
The Congress’s focus will be on improving the financial condition of the apple growers and we will formulate the policies accordingly.
Will the Congress also bring back the Old Pension Scheme (OPS) for state employees?
Yes, the OPS scheme will be re-introduced. It has already been done in Rajasthan and Chattisgarh. For the pensioners, there are no other avenues of earning and their demands are valid. Once our government is formed, we will prepare an estimate of the fund allocation it requires, and the policy will be framed accordingly.
Virbhadra Singh enjoyed immense popularity across the state. This will be the Congress’s first election since his demise. What are the challenges that you and the party are facing in his absence?
Virbadhra Singh ji was a tall leader who had a direct connection with the people. His idea of governance was to include members from every section of society. He was a leader of the masses and was known to solve problems of people. Now that he is not here, it is felt by the people and especially the Congress party that there is a vacuum in leadership. I am thankful to Smt Sonia Gandhi that she named me as the party president. It was keeping his legacy and his popularity in mind that the decision was taken. It was the party’s opinion that with me on the ground it will be able to reflect the same policies (like Virbhadra’s) which will help us in the coming elections.
With Sonia Gandhi and Rahul Gandhi being summoned by the central agencies, how much does national politics involving the Congress impact the party in the state?
These things have happened before. Prime Minister Narendra Modi had announced that he envisions a “Congress mukt Bharat”. The government is taking all measures to corner the party. But we must remember that Smt Sonia Gandhi has always fought against all odds. Both Sonia and Rahul Gandhi have answered all the questions and the government cannot go on for long. We are confident that our national leadership will bounce back as they always have.
At the ground level, the public have also realised that the Congress leaders are being targeted. There is a sense of discontentment with the way the government has been using its powers. And in this election, this will be a factor.
Fresh off their victory in Punjab, the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) is gearing up to launch an aggressive campaign in HP. For a state that has largely seen a two-party rivalry, will this be a three-way battle this election?
Aam Aadmi Party was very confident after its victory in Punjab. But soon we saw the breakdown of law and order and how other things panned out there. The AAP in HP largely comprises of rebels from other parties, who were disgruntled after not getting tickets. There is no prominent AAP face in HP. The party believes that Arvind Kejrirwal’s name will be enough to get them support in the state. But the voters of Himachal are very smart. They vote on the basis of development and work. Kejriwal is an outsider.
Will the Congress declare its CM face ahead of the HP polls?
This is a decision that can only be taken once our government is formed. If a CM face is declared (before polls), there could be heartburn as there are many (party aspirants) in the fray. Our first focus is to regain the public mandate.
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