Last year, the by-poll victory of Congress MP Pratibha Singh within four months of the death of her husband and six-time chief minister of Himachal Pradesh Vidrbhadra Singh, worked as a shot in the arm for the party and a nasty jolt for the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party.
With an eye on the polls slated for the year-end, the party high command on Tuesday appointed three-time MP Pratibha Singh as state Congress president in what seems to be a strong message to the BJP as the party prepares to play the Virbhadra card again.
With Congress struggling to find a foothold in certain parts of the state due to a lack of popular mass leaders, Pratibha Singh became an easy choice for the state president's post. But unlike Virbhadra, Pratibha Singh, though a three-time MP, is neither known to be a mass leader nor a great election campaigner. She will, nevertheless, be an important potential candidate for this election. Congress believes leading with Singh as a symbolic tribute to the political legacy of Virbhadra will help the party gain sympathy votes. The former CM was known to have the ability to fight the BJP. Despite not getting two consecutive terms in office, Virbhadra Singh kept coming back after beating BJP veterans like Prem Kumar Dhumal and Shanta Kumar.
In a bid to strike a balance, the Congress high command also appointed three-time MLA Sukhwinder Sukhu, a former PCC president, as head of the party’s campaign committee for the state polls.
Sukhu, a young party face, who has grown from the ranks of NSUI president to youth Congress chief to a councillor in Shimla Municipal Corporation before becoming the PCC chief was not liked by Virbhadra Singh. Incidentally, Sukhu had lobbied for the party chief position as well and reportedly settled with the party's choice to hand him charge of the state election committees. The position gives him the potential power to influence the distribution of Congress tickets to candidates.
Insiders say the Congress Legislature Party (CLP) leader Mukesh Agnihotri, a Brahmin face, was also considered for the PCC position before the party decided to institute a pre-condition that anyone who gets appointed as PCC chief will not contest the election.
The Congress seems to have also deliberated on the caste factor by choosing a Rajput face as the party chief. "The leaders analysed the BJP's choice for Chief Minister in 2017. After its CM candidate Prem Kumar Dhumal lost the poll, the 'Sangh Parivar' approved Jai Ram Thakur since he was a Rajput. The BJP national president J P Nadda, who was a union minister in 2017, could not become a choice for CM's post," a senior Congress leader tells Outlook on condition of anonymity.
Four working presidents have also been appointed for a caste and regional re-balancing. They include Vinay Kumar, a two-time Dalit MLA, Rajender Rana, a Rajput MLA who defeated Prem Kumar Dhumal in 2017, Pawan Kajal, an OBC from Kangra and former minister, and Virbhadra Singh-loyalist Harsh Mahajan.
Two days ago when Outlook asked Pratibha Singh about speculations doing the rounds about her potential elevation to the state president position, she had said, "It’s a huge responsibility. Yet whatever experience I have gained seeing how hard Raja Sahib (Virbhadra Singh) used to work as Chief Minister or when in the Opposition, will be my strength. Though he is not here physically, his presence is always around me”.
Virbhadra Singh's Legacy
Since 1985, Himachal Pradesh is known as a state alternating power between the Congress and BJP, and Virbhadra Singh was always the face of Congress's onslaught. A fighter and veteran politician who had travelled through the length and breadth of Himachal Pradesh on foot, Virbhadra is said to have remembered the villagers he met on his journeys by their name.
Elected as MP at the age of 28 years in 1962 on the behest of Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru, Virbhadra had worked with all Congress Prime Ministers from Indira Gandhi to Dr Manmohan Singh in various capacities as MP, union minister and chief minister.
Virbhadra Singh enjoyed the support of the masses but he also struggled with corruption allegations and even CBI and ED cases during his last term as CM from 2012 to 2017. This did not deter his spirit and he died as a sitting MLA, even as his son Vikramaditya Singh made his maiden entry to the state assembly.
Pratibha Singh lost the Lok Sabha election from Mandi in 2014 despite Virbhadra Singh being Chief Minister. She did not contest in 2019. However, her political fortunes took a turn when she decided to contest Mandi bypoll in November 2021 – a calculated risk in chief minister Jai Ram Thakur’s home district, and emerged as the winner.
This was a serious blow to the BJP, which continued to brush aside claims of the Congress victory being a sign of the revival of the party's fate, a year ahead of the polls.
“The win was basically due to the sympathy factor for Virbhadra Singh. We have learnt some good lessons from our defeat and Pratibha Singh’s appointment will not make any difference to the BJP, which will be forming the next government in Himachal Pradesh as it did in UP, Uttarakhand, Goa and Manipur,” says Jai Ram Thakur.
The race for the chief ministerial post is still an open bet. Pratibha Singh becoming the PCC president may play to the advantage of the Congress in areas like Rampur, Kinnaur, Lahaul-Spiti, Kullu, Bharmour and Sirmaur, where Virbhadra Singh had influence. But the lack of resources, factionalism and lack of more strong campaigners matching the BJP will always be a disadvantage to the Congress party.
AAP making an entry into the state following the party's victory in Punjab could dent both Congress and BJP vote banks. The state’s bipolar politics, however, will undoubtedly confine the race for power largely between the BJP and the Congress.