Himachal ‘Royals’ Open New Front For Congress

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14-Month Wait, Then Strike: Himachal Royals Open New Front For Congress

Sukhvinder Singh Sukhu is a known critic of former Chief Minister Virbhadra Singh

Shimla:

Virbhadra Singh, Congress’s tallest leader in Himachal Pradesh and a six-time Chief Minister, breathed his last on July 8, 2021. But the Congress fought the Assembly polls a year a later not in the name of any living leader, but in the name of its dead veteran. There were faultlines, of course. The state Congress was helmed by Virbhadra Singh’s wife Pratibha Singh and leading the party’s campaign committee was Sukhvinder Singh Sukhu, a grassroots-level leader and a known critic of the late Chief Minister.

The Congress leadership, however, managed to project a united front and the party won 40 seats out of the 68 in the Assembly, ousting the incumbent BJP.

The bigger challenge, however, was waiting. Pratibha Singh was being seen as a frontrunner for the top post, but the Congress decided to bet on Mr Sukhu. Reluctantly, the mother-son duo of Pratibha Singh and Vikramaditya Singh swallowed defeat. Fourteen months on, as Mr Sukhu fights to save his government after dramatic developments during a Rajya Sabha election, the knives are out. The seeds of discontent sown a year back have borne fruit, with Vikramaditya Singh resigning as minister and accusing the government of Mr Sukhu of disrespecting his father despite the Congress winning the polls in his name.

The Royal Veteran

A scion of the erstwhile royal family of Bushahr, Virbhadra Singh was fondly called Raja Sahib. An alumnus of the prestigious Bishop Cotton School in Shimla and Delhi’s St Stephen’s College, he became a Lok Sabha MP for the first time in 1962. He would get elected to the Lower House of Parliament four more times. Following two stints as a central minister, he became Chief Minister for the first time in 1983. He would go on to occupy the post six times during his long political career. He lost the post in 2017 when the BJP won the state polls and Jairam Thakur took over as the Chief Minister.

Mr Singh’s last years on the political landscape overlapped with Mr Sukhu’s tenure as state Congress chief and there was no love lost between them. So much so that at one point, Mr Singh refused to share stage with Mr Sukhu. The leadership did manage a truce but the acrimony remained.

The Grassroots Leader

The political rise of Mr Sukhu was in stark contrast to that of Mr Singh. Coming from an ordinary family, he started out as an activist of the Congress’s students wing, NSUI. He went on to serve as a councillor in Shimla municipal corporation before being elected to the Assembly for the first time in 2003. A four-time MLA, he took over as state Congress chief in 2019, setting the stage for his rivalry with Virbhadra Singh.

Despite the towering stature of the six-time Chief Minister, Mr Sukhu minced no words in his criticism of the veteran. In fact, in 2019, he hit out at Mr Singh for “blackmailing” the Congress before every election. “Singh considers himself as Congress in Himachal Pradesh. The truth is that time has changed. Congress is strong at the booth level and Singh is not necessary for the Congress to win,” he said.

Congress’s Big Choice

In the aftermath of its 2022 victory, the Congress was faced with a tough choice for the Chief Minister post. It picked Mr Sukhu over Virbhadra Singh’s wife Pratibha or son Vikramaditya Singh. There were reasons for this decision. The BJP’s favourite line of attack on the Grand Old Party is dynasty. In Mr Sukhu, the Congress saw a model party worker who had risen from the grassroots and had administrative experience. Choosing him would blunt the BJP charge, the Congress must have thought. The Congress leader is also known to be close to Congress leaders Rahul Gandhi and Priyanka Gandhi Vadra. Also, choosing Mr Sukhu helped the Congress put the corruption charges against Virbhadra Singh behind them and closed another line of attack from the BJP.

Another key factor was that the Vibhadra Singh camp did not perform very well in the 2022 polls, depriving them of the political muscle required to clinch the Chief Minister post. 

The Balancing Act

Before the announcement of Mr Sukhu as the high command’s Chief Minister choice, Pratibha Singh was being considered a frontrunner for the top post. When the Congress decided otherwise, it tried a balancing act to prevent a mutiny. The state Congress president post stayed with Pratibha Singh and her son Vikramditya was given a minister’s post. “We accept the decision taken by Congress high command,” she said after the big announcement. Mr Sukhu ruled out any discontent in the Congress ranks following his selection.

A Timely Strike

As the Congress struggled to recover from the Rajya Sabha election stunner pulled off by the BJP, the royals opened up another front. In a press conference this morning, Vikramaditya Singh accused the Sukhvinder Singh Sukhu government of disrespecting his father and ignoring the voices of MLAs in its 14-month rule. Vikramaditya Singh resigned as minister and said that ball is in the Congress high command’s court. This, after six Congress MLAs cross-voted in the Rajya Sabha election and the BJP claimed that the Sukhvinder Singh Sukhu government had lost the mandate to stay in power. 

Congress’ Jairam Ramesh has said that the leadership will not shy away from “difficult decisions”. “Individuals are not important, it’s the mandate that we have to respect. All options are open and the party is supreme. We will take whatever decision is required and soon,” he said.

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