NESTLED among picturesque hills, Mandi is usually pleasant at this time of the year. But it was hot and sultry on July 6 as telecom scam-tainted Sukh Ram launched his Himachal Vikas Congress (HVC) before 5,000 supporters. "We will fight nepotism, corruption and the rot that has set in in the Himachal government headed by Virbhadra Singh," the former Union minister thundered to enthusiastic applause. It's still early days to forecast how the new party will fare, but it is certain that its launch does not augur well for the Himachal Congress.
Ironically, corruption was Sukh Ram's theme song of the day. It will also be, he reiterated time and again, his party's main focus. The man accused of playing the lead role in the telecom scandal—in which Rs 1,500 crore was allegedly pocketed by politicians and bureaucrats—and from whose houses in New Delhi and Mandi the CBI recovered Rs 3.67 crore in hard cash would now like to project himself as a scam-buster. Sukh Ram's line in explaining away his questionable past sounds familiar: he was innocent, he had been nailed, vested interests were behind his arrest.
Indeed, his supporters cite the CBI raids as examples of the injustice perpetrated on Sukh Ram. The early morning CBI raid on their leader's residence in Mandi on August 16, 1996, is portrayed as a "cold and calculated" act by the CBI. It is alleged that the fact that the CBI team had swung into action at a time when Sukh Ram was not at home and Virbhadra Singh was visiting Mandi is a clear pointer that the CBI was acting at the behest of the chief minister.
Of course, no one can explain the Rs 1.6 crore in cash recovered by the CBI from the Mandi house. When one badgers supporters about the charges of corruption that have been levelled against their leader, the response is predictable. So what if he is corrupt? Hasn't he done good for the people? Having proclaimed that scam-busting and exposing Virbhadra Singh will be his agenda, Sukh Ram has begun to spell out the corrupt practices. The allegations veer round contracts awarded and alleged kickbacks that total, ironically, less than Rs 3.67 crore. "We are worried about the rampant corruption in Himachal," observes Deshraj Sharma, president of the state Shiv Sena who has joined the new party.
Sharma started the Himachal unit of the Sena after a month's orientation course with the Sena in Mumbai. But now he and his outfit, he says, have realised that "Panditji is the only answer to the problems faced by the people of Himachal Pradesh". Sharma claims that neither the Congress nor the BJP is willing to address 'real' issues.
THOUGH the Himachal Sena is a marginal unit, it works at the grassroots level. In fact, almost all those who have joined Sukh Ram's party are political lightweights. However, a sizeable number of district-level Congress leaders, particularly from the Mandi, Kulu, Kangra and Bilaspur area, have joined the HVC. This is what is worrying the state Congress. While Sukh Ram may not emerge as a third force, he could cut into the Congress votebanks in Mandi and surrounding districts in the assembly elections scheduled for next year.
The new party is also likely to attract disgruntled elements within the Congress. Though Virbhadra Singh maintains a firm hold on the Pradesh Congress Committee, many Congressmen are upset over his feudal style of functioning. There is also a measure of heartburn over the fact that he has appointed his wife as a vice-president of the state unit. But as of now no MLA has quit the Congress.
Why is Sukh Ram still popular despite the CBI cases pending against him? In the Mandi belt, he has a reputation of a doer. The most common pro-Sukh Ram mantra is that he has done much for the region: roads were built, telephone exchanges set up and, yes, phone connections given on demand. In short, all the good that have happened in Mandi and its adjoining districts seems to have happened courtesy Panditji.
The doer image is one which Sukh Ram lays much emphasis on. And telecommunications is his obvious USP. At the July 6 convention, he enumerated his achievements in information technology. Every village in Himachal Pradesh is linked by telephone. Optical fibre cables have been laid in Mandi. Districts which were regarded as the most backward can now avail of Internet facilities. Unemployed youths have been given PCOs. "The phone connections have helped parents keep in touch with their children. The PCOs have helped people who were going around on cycles buy scooters and those on scooters have been able to buy cars. I want everyone in Mandi to own a car," he told his audience.
In fact, Sukh Ram's supporters believe that the telecom revolution in Himachal Pradesh will only continue if Sukh Ram remains politically active and becomes the chief minister. And among those who attended the one-day convention were a good sprinkling of doctors, lawyers and retired bureaucrats. For instance, former parliamentary secretary Chamanlal Jatchi shared the dais with the former telecom minister. Sukh Ram would welcome support from any quarter. By all accounts it is a do-or-die battle for him. Expelled from the Congress by Sitaram Kesri and marginalised by Virbhadra Singh, the former telecom minister has many scores to settle. But the real test for his new party will be at the hustings. Earlier attempts to form a third front in the state have failed. Sukh Ram, however, is confident that he will succeed.