Himachal Pradesh: Why Congress fell back on Virbhadra Singh’s legacy

NEW DELHI: As Himachal Pradesh inches forward to assembly election in less than six months, the principal opposition Congress party is grappling with the twin issues of factionalism and leadership crisis. Having failed to nurture a strong second line of leaders, the party has been forced to fall back upon the legacy of its tallest leader so far – late Virbhadra Singh.
After former chief minister Virbhadra Singh had passed away in July 2021, the Himachal Pradesh Congress witnessed heightened factionalism. Though the party effected a rejig last month to stem the inner squabbling, it relied on the towering personality of Virbhadra Singh.
Those close to Virbhadra Singh remain the most dominant group. Virbhadra Singh’s wife Pratibha Singh, herself a three-term sitting MP from Mandi, replaced Kuldeep Singh Rathore as the Himachal Pradesh Congress president.
The leadership has sought to cash in on the image of Virbhadra Singh, who was a nine-time MLA, six-time chief minister and five-time MP. He had also served as a Union minister on several occasions under prime ministers Indira Gandhi and Manmohan Singh. He was president of Himachal Pradesh Congress for four times.
A towering personality that he was, Singh was also Himachal’s longest-serving CM who had dominated the political landscape for half a century.
Pratibha was also chosen because of four other factors.
The party believes that the sympathy factor in favour of Pratibha Singh will help it in the election. After all, she contested the Mandi Lok Sabha by-election on October 30 last year and defeated her nearest rival Brigadier Khushal Thakur of BJP. Virbhadra died on July 8 the same year. He was 87.
Besides being Virbhadra’s wife and having the advantage of sympathy wave, what went in favour of Pratibha was that she won from Mandi, which is considered a bastion of Himachal Pradesh CM Jai Ram Thakur.
Pratibha’s caste also tilted the balance in her favour. She is a Rajput. Of all the Himachal Pradesh CMs so far, all except Shanta Kumar of BJP have been Rajputs.
Finally, it was believed that being the most dominant group in the party, Pratibha’s selection as its state president will help check factionalism.
It was reflected in Pratibha’s return to Shimla for the first time on May 2 after the announcement of her name as the state president last month. A roadshow was taken out from Parwanoo to Shimla. Her MLA son Vikramaditya Singh was also present on the occasion.
Pratibha, 65, said, “One expects respect in the party and keeping that in mind, different leaders have been given important responsibilities… Let me take charge of the office and we will bring everyone together.”
On May 5, Pratibha assumed the charge in the presence of Congress Working Committee (CWC) member in-charge of Himachal Pradesh Rajeev Shukla. The party tried to put up a united face as leaders of most of the factions were in attendance.
Hinting at the factionalism in the party, Shukla said it was futile to constantly emphasise on unity as the party was united. He said the entire Congress was present there indicating that the party cadres were enthused to take on BJP.
Exhorting all to join hands, he said, “The fight is not for the chair but to get the party back to power as it is the party high command which will decide who will be the CM.”
Meanwhile, besides appointing Pratibha as state president, the Congress leadership has sought to keep several other state leaders in good humour while reconstituting the team ahead of the assembly election.
In order to maintain a delicate balance, the party leadership has appointed four working presidents – Harsh Mahajan, Rajinder Rana, Pawan Kajal and Vinay Kumar. It is for the first time that the post of working president has been created and as many as four leaders have been appointed to it.
Four-time MLA Mukesh Agnihotri has been retained as Congress Legislature Party (CLP) leader while Harshvardhan Chauhan will be his deputy.
Former state president Sukhwinder Singh Sukhu has been appointed chairperson of the state campaign committee. He will also be a member of the AICC screening committee for selection of candidates.
Former deputy leader of Congress in the Rajya Sabha Anand Sharma will head the steering committee while Asha Kumari will be its convener.
While Dhaniram Shandil will head the manifesto committee, former state party president Kaul Singh Thakur will chair the coordination committee.
Ram Lal Thakur will be the chairperson of the election management committee.
In an attempt to set its house in order, Jagat Singh Negi has been appointed as the chief whip. There have been a number of other appointments as well with a view to pleasing as many leaders and factions as possible.

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