The Congress may have given the ticket to Aashray Sharma and the BJP to Ram Swaroop Sharma, but the actual contest in Himachal Pradesh’s Mandi Lok Sabha constituency is between former Union minister Sukh Ram and Chief Minister Jai Ram Thakur.
Sukh Ram wanted the BJP to field Aashray, his grandson, from Mandi. But on being denied, he and Ashray joined the Congress, which gave the latter the party ticket. Following the development, Sukh Ram’s son Anil Sharma, who was a minister in the Himachal Pradesh government, had to resign from the cabinet. All of them had joined the BJP ahead of the 2017 Assembly polls.
While Aashray is making his electoral debut, Ram Swaroop, is seeking reelection, fighting the anti-incumbency factor mainly due to his minimal interaction with the electors and not having done much developmental work in the area in the past five years.
Mandi being the chief minister’s home district, and Thakur being the first-ever chief minister from here, winning the election is a prestige issue for him. Thakur and the other BJP leaders see Sukh Ram as the main challenge here.
Sukh Ram-Virbhadra stronghold
On April 25, Mandi witnessed one of the biggest nomination rallies in Himachal Pradesh. It was the Congress rally. Addressing the rally, Sukh Ram broke into tears. He also shared the stage with senior Congress leader and once a bitter foe, Virbhadra Singh. They make for a formidable alliance. Together, they have won six Lok Sabha polls from Mandi in the past, with Virbhadra emerging victorious in 1971, 1980 and 2009, and Sukh Ram in 1984, 1996, and 1991. Also, Virbhadra’s wife, Pratibha Singh, won the seat as a Congress candidate in 2004.
Of the total 15 Lok Sabha elections that Mandi has seen, Congress won 11 times and the BJP four, precisely the reason why it is considered a Congress stronghold. Of the 17 assembly segments that form the Mandi Lok Sabha constituency, Sukh Ram wields an edge in nine and Virbhadra holds sway over four – Bharmour (ST), Lahaul and Spiti (ST), Rampur (SC) and Kinnaur (ST). However, it remains to be seen whether Virbhadra, who shared a strong political rivalry with Sukh Ram in the past, will whole-heartedly support Aashray in the May 19 election. If he does, it could prove to be a game changer for the Congress in Mandi.
Aashray, meanwhile, is confident. “Virbhadra ji has been supporting me wholeheartedly and I know I have his blessings,” he told The Indian Express. In the 2014 Lok Sabha polls, the BJP had won all four Lok Sabha seats in the state, securing 53.85 per cent votes. The Congress, which drew nil, had got 41.07 per cent votes. In Mandi, BJP’s Ram Swaroop had won with 49.94 per cent votes with Congress’s Pratibha Singh trailing with 44.46 per cent.
CM Jai Ram Thakur’s home district
Mandi being his home district, winning the seat is crucial for Jai Ram Thakur. The Himachal Pradesh chief minister, who is spearheading the BJP’s poll campaign in the state, had won the 2017 state Assembly polls from the Seraj Assembly segment, which falls under the Mandi parliamentary seat. Also, the onus of winning all four seats for the BJP is on Thakur, a first-time chief minister whose work in the past year and leadership skills are being put to test for the first time. Thakur, however, is asking for votes not on the works done by his government in the past year, but in the name of Prime Minister Narendra Modi.
While the seat was being perceived as an easy one for the BJP, Sukh Ram and Aashray rejoining the Congress in March this year, and the former Union minister’s grandson being declared the Congress candidate from Mandi introduced a fresh challenge for the BJP. Sukh Ram’s son Anil, who recently resigned from the Thakur cabinet, continues to be a BJP MLA from Mandi. However, he has neither been campaigning for the BJP nor for the Congress, which is expected to have repercussions for both the parties. In the given scenario, the BJP leaders, including candidate Ram Swaroop, acknowledge the challenge that greets the party.
“My fight is not with Aashray. It is with Sukh Ram,” Ram Swaroop told The Indian Express.
On Aashray’s allegations that “no developmental works were done by Ram Swaroop in the past five years”, tye BJP candidate said, “Work on all projects that were promised are underway. The paperwork is complete, construction will start soon”.
In the Mandi Lok Sabha seat, the issues including that of improving communication by four-laning of roads and railway lines, and construction of a salt mining plant have taken a back seat this election season.