In an apparent truce, Congress Vice-President on Saturday announced that Virbhadra Singh would be the party’s chief ministerial candidate for poll-bound Himachal Pradesh. The deal was struck to prevent an escalating factional feud in the incumbent Congress government from derailing the party’s election campaign in the hill-state.
According to the compromise formula, while Rahul Gandhi declared that Singh, the incumbent chief minister, would continue to rule the state if the Congress came back to power, the veteran Himachal leader grudgingly accepted that his bete noire Sukhwinder Singh Sukhu would remain president of the Congress’ Himachal Pradesh unit. Singh had earlier threatened to boycott the Assembly elections if Sukhu was not replaced as the state party chief ahead of the polls. Singh wants a candidate of his choice to assume the post, to ensure that his loyalists are not ignored when tickets are distributed to candidates to contest the Assembly elections later this year.
The seeming lose-lose deal between Rahul Gandhi and Singh is unlikely to undo the damage caused to the party’s poll prospects by the prolonged infighting in the Congress state unit, the corruption charges against the Himachal Pradesh chief minister and the massive anti-incumbency against Singh’s government on account of poor governance and deteriorating law and order in the hill state.
This is not the first time that Singh has rebelled on election eve. In the run-up to the last Assembly polls, he had threatened to join the Nationalist Congress Party unless he was appointed state unit chief and projected as the chief ministerial candidate. Congress President Sonia Gandhi rushed to mollify Singh and the party went on to win the state. At the time, Sonia Gandhi had gone out of her way to accommodate Singh because she realised the party was well placed to win the Assembly polls, but only if they had the veteran leader, deferentially called Raja in his home state, by their side.
But things were different this time. Party Vice-President Rahul Gandhi is calling the shots now and the Nehru-Gandhi scion is known to have differences with Singh. It is said that the Himachal Pradesh chief minister tends to assert his seniority and the clout he enjoys in his state before the Congress top leadership and makes it known that he can do irreparable harm to the party if they fail to give in to his demands.
But Rahul Gandhi was unwilling to budge. This could be partly because the Congress vice-president has received feedback that the party is on shaky ground in Himachal Pradesh and that little would be achieved by pandering to Singh.
“Sukhu is basically Rahul Gandhi’s choice and he’s unwilling to let him ago,” said a senior state Congress leader. Consequently, the fight in Himachal Congress has become a battle between Rahul Gandhi and Singh.
Though Congress insiders accept that no party chief should give in to such pressure tactics, they also admit that Singh is the only tall leader in Himachal Pradesh and that despite the anti-incumbency sentiment, his clout and charisma are undeniable. The Congress could pay a heavy price for alienating Singh, in the absence of any other popular mass leader in the hill-state.
“Sukku’s position has clearly been undermined,” said a state Congress leader. “The Raja has been assured that he will get priority in the distribution of tickets.”
Singh too had no choice but to accept the compromise offered by Rahul Gandhi. Unlike in 2012, the chief minister finds his position weakened this time, owing to a disproportionate assets case against him being probed by the Central Bureau of Investigation and the all-round disillusionment with his government. Moreover, Singh wants to launch his son Vikramaditya in politics, for which he has to be on the right side of the party leadership.
Though Congress workers have been weighed down by the infighting and the overall negative sentiment against the party, they are hoping they can counter the BJP’s charges by putting the Modi government in the dock for the slowdown in the economy. “This is a powerful weapon not just in the state but also at the national-level,” said a state Congress leader. “We should focus on job losses, price rise and the poor implementation of GST.”
Himachal Pradesh, he said, has been severely affected by the economic slowdown due to its dependence on tourism and the Congress needs to highlight this in a sustained campaign, which the party is yet to do.
While the Congress is struggling to get its act together,the BJP’s well-oiled party machinery is running an aggressive campaign against Chief Minister Singh, one that targets him personally over corruption charges as well as his government for poor governance. Its cadres have also been on the move, organising yatras and sammelans with different communities on various issues. Besides focusing on the dominant caste groups of Brahmins and Thakurs, the BJP has also launched a massive campaign to woo Dalits, who constitute nearly 26% of the state’s population.
In fact, the BJP is so confident of its victory that most conversations in the party centre on who they will appoint as chief minister. Former Himachal Chief Minister PK Dhumal, who enjoys widespread support across the state, is a strong contender. But Union Health Minister JP Nadda’s name is also doing the rounds.