Having secured a simple majority in Himachal Pradesh, the immediate challenge facing the Congress is picking its chief ministerial candidate with at least three leaders, including state party president Pratibha Singh, emerging as front-runners. The other key contenders are former state party chief Sukhwinder Singh Sukhu and outgoing CLP leader Mukesh Agnihotri.
Though they have claimed that the CM face will eventually be picked by the newly-elected MLAs with the consent of party high command, the three leaders, separately, have staked claim to the top post, directly or indirectly.
Though Pratibha, the Lok Sabha MP from Mandi, did not contest the Assembly election, she had on Wednesday indicated that “Holly Lodge” – her family’s ancestral home – remained interested in the CM’s post if the party wins the Assembly election. Pratibha carries the legacy of her husband late Virbhadra Singh, a six-time CM who remained the Congress’ undisputed leader in the hill state for long.
When asked who will be the party’s CM face, Pratibha Thursday said the new MLAs will discuss the names and give their opinion to the party’s high command. She, however, added that the “sentiment of the people who voted” for her husband’s legacy will also be conveyed to the high command.
“Virbhadra has done so much for the party. His legacy and his family can’t be ignored (while deciding the CM candidate),” she told The Indian Express.
“There is no leader of Virbhadra’s stature in the state. There is no tall leader like him,” she added.
She also finds nothing wrong in aspiring for the top post. “When someone becomes an MLA, he wants to become a minister. When someone becomes a minister, he wants to become a chief minister. Nothing wrong with that,” Pratibha had said earlier.
She said that the immediate challenge for the Congress was “to deliver what we promised”.
“The elected MLAs will sit down and we will chalk out the future road map,” she added.
The election results, however, have come both as a booster shot and a rude jolt for Pratibha with fingers being raised on her leadership as party could win only five of the 17 Assembly segments that are part of her Mandi parliamentary constituency.
The parliamentary constituency comprises nine of 10 Assembly segments of Mandi district — the 10th Dharampur falls in Hamirpur parliamentary constituency — one (Rampur) from Shimla, one each of Lahaul & Spiti and Kinnaur, four of Kullu district and one (Bharmaur) of Chamba district.
Congress won from Rampur, Kinnaur, Lahaul & Spiti, Manali, and Kullu. The rest 12 — Bharmour, Banjar, Anni, Karsog, Sundernagar, Nachan, Seraj, Darang, Joginder Nagar, Mandi, Balh, Sarkaghat — have landed in BJP kitty.
“It is time for introspection. Our lead (over BJP, which won 25 seats in state) could have been huge had we secured some more segments falling under Mandi Lok Sabha seat,” said a Congress leader, asking not to be named.
Meanwhile, Congress’s former state unit president and its campaign committee chief, Sukhu, 58, was very diplomatic with his answer when asked if he was in the running for CM’s chair. “Main abhi-abhi vidhyak bana hoon. Jo high command taya karegi, wohi karoonga (I have just been elected an MLA. I’ll do whatever the high command tells me to),” he told The Indian Express.
Sukhu contested from Nadaun seat in central Himachal and won by more than 4,000 votes. The three-time MLA has acceptability among the party cadre and is considered among the strongest contenders for the CM’s post. The majority of the candidates recommended by him, including nine fresh faces, have won.
On the immediate challenge for the Congress, he said, “Sarkar chalana aur bachana hi sabse bada challenge hai (To run and protect the government is the biggest challenge).”
Agnihotri, the Leader of the Opposition in the outgoing Vidha Sabha, was much more forthcoming.
“When I was made the Leader of Opposition, Rahul Gandhi had told me to bring the party to power. I have done what I was asked to,” he told The Indian Express.
The 60-year-old claimed that the BJP left no stone unturned “to stop the Congress, especially me, from coming to power”.
“Prime Minister (Narendra Modi), many Union Ministers and (Uttar Pradesh Chief Minister) Aditya Yoginath had campaigned in my constituency. Despite that, I have won for a record fifth time,” said Agnihotri who won from Haroli in south-west Himachal by around 10,000 votes.
The Congress veteran, however, added that he had never lobbied for the post of Leader of Opposition. “Whatever the high command ordered me, I have done. The high command will take a decision (on the CM candidate),” he added.
During the election campaign, Union Home Minister Amit Shah had mocked the Congress, saying the party had at least eight contenders for the CM’s post. On Thursday, former minister Sudhir Sharma, who retained his Dharamshala seat, said, “The Congress is a democratic party where anyone can dream of becoming the CM. Amit Shah talked about eight CM candidates, but I can say that there may be more. After all, this shows how democratic the Congress is.”
An All India Congress Committee secretary, Sharma, too was considered as one of the CM post contenders. “Everyone will move forward together on the decision taken by the party high command on the leadership,” said Sharma who had earlier served as the minister of housing, urban development and town & country planning in the hill state.
Two other leaders who were considered in contention for the post, Asha Kumari and Kaul Singh Thakur, are out of the picture. While Kumari, a six-time MLA from Dalhousie, lost her seat, Thakur, an eight-time MLA, who had won consistently from Mandi’s Darang constituency, too lost to BJP’s Puran Chand Thakur.