It was April 25. Aashray Sharma (32) had filed his nomination papers as the Congress candidate from Mandi Lok Sabha seat, after which he shared the stage with his grandfather, Sukh Ram (93), who was placed behind a podium and was addressing a massive rally in Mandi – Congress’s biggest nomination day rally across all four Lok Sabha seats in Himachal Pradesh.
As Sukh Ram, former Union minister, addressed the crowd seeking support for Aashray, his voice choked with emotion. In reaction, Aashray’s eyes welled up with tears, and it took some effort on Aashray’s part to take control of his emotions while he was on stage.
It is perhaps this image of Aashray – an emotional, soft-spoken, unaggressive man – that people in Mandi find endearing.
Parmanand, a Mandi local, claims to be a supporter of Prime Minister Narendra Modi. However, he admits that he likes Aashray. “As a candidate I like Aashray. He’s so sabhya (civil),” Parmanand says.
For Aashray, the candidature for the Lok Sabha polls this time is a step towards the “dream” of becoming a political leader that was sown somewhere around the age of “five, or six”, he says.
Speaking to The Indian Express, Aashray recalls the first incident that inspired him to become a political leader: “I remember that one day a few people approached me and asked me whether I could get applications for gas connections signed from my grandfather, who was a Union minister at the time. I took the papers to the room where my grandfather was sitting. He smiled at me, signed the papers and I returned the papers to the people, who were filled with gratitude and happiness since they had not expected that their work would actually be done, and that too so quickly. Their reactions are etched in my brain.”
“I recall having felt elated at those reactions. Many such similar incidents followed that made my realise that all I wanted to do was to work for my people (in Mandi), just like Pandit Sukh Ram,” says Aashray, who holds his grandfather as his idol in politics and in life.
Sukh Ram, who wields immense clout in the 10 state Assembly seats in Mandi district, was Minister of State for Communication in the P V Narasimha Rao government. He has been battling court cases ever since his name came up in the telecom scam in the 1990s.
Aashray, however, dodges questions on Sukh Ram’s conviction in the telecom scam. “The matter is in the court, so I won’t be able to comment on it,” he says.
Aashray hold a degree in hotel management from the UK-based Cardiff University, and has been active in politics for 13 years now. In December 2016, he entered into an arranged marriage with Radhika Gambhir, a lawyer and fashion blogger.
“About 13 years ago, I started as a base worker for Congress in Mandi, where I managed publicity material for the party,” he says. About four years later, he became the Mandi District Congress Committee general secretary, where he was responsible for the 10 state Assembly seats in Mandi district. He was later promoted as a secretary of Himachal Pradesh Congress Committee, and was appointed observer for Seraj state Assembly constituency.
However, just before the 2017 state Assembly polls, Aashray, Sukh Ram and Aashray’s father Anil Sharma (62) switched over to the BJP. Anil contested the 2017 election form the Mandi state Assembly seat as a BJP candidate and won.
Having been assigned “no noteworthy work” in the BJP in the past year and a half, Aashray looked after his father’s work and often addressed the media in Mandi on behalf of his father. Ahead of the Lok Sabha polls, Aashray had sought candidature from Mandi Lok Sabha seat as a BJP candidate but was rejected, after which he rejoined the Congress along with Sukh Ram on March 25, this year, and was fielded from Mandi as a Congress candidate.
Meanwhile, Anil resigned from the Jai Ram Thakur cabinet after Aashray and Sukh Ram joined the Congress.
While the chief minister has called the entire saga of Sukh Ram and his family switching parties as “politics of opportunism”, Anil, who has held on to his position as BJP MLA, is neither campaigning for the BJP, nor for his son.
While Aashray is making his electoral debut, Ram Swaroop, who is seeking reelection, says to The Indian Express, “For me, the contest is with Sukh Ram, and not with Aashray.”
Ram Swaroop, who is facing anti-incumbency in Mandi and is banking on the name of Modi for votes, says, “People don’t appreciate the way this family (of Sukh Ram) keeps switching between political parties. And they’ll know it when the election results are announced.”