Having served as PCC president between 1998-2008, Sukhwinder Sukhu had once made stalwarts like the six-time winner Virbhadra Singh uncomfortable due to his strong grip on the party organisation. Three-time MLA from Nadaun in Hamirpur – also the home district of former BJP Chief Minister of Himachal Pradesh Prem Kumar Dhumal – is seen as one of the top Chief Ministerial faces in Himachal Pradesh. From being a student leader, NSUI and youth Congress President to a ward councillor in Shimla and then MLA, Sukhu has steadily risen among the ranks within the party. Now the Congress Campaign Committee head, Sukhu spoke to Outlook's Ashwani Sharma on the party's poll prospects in the upcoming assembly elections.
With just days left for Himachal Pradesh to go to the polls, how do you see the Congress' prospects?
My assessment is very much in line with the mood of the people. They are quite unhappy with the present government. The BJP slogan – 'Riwaaz Badal Raha Hai' has found no takers. Abb to riwaaz nahin raj badal rahi hai (Government is changing, not the custom).
Is there a change in the offing that you are hinting at?
Correct. The day, when poll results are declared (December 8), Jai Ram Thakur will mark the end of his Chief Ministerial journey. The “accidental” Chief Minister, as he is known, has proved to be a big failure. He alienated almost every section of society including youths, government employees and farmers. They are going to vote him out of power. Polls are going to give a decisive verdict in favour of Congress.
What is the basis of such confidence?
The trends have been in favour of the Congress ever since the Congress won bypolls. The BJP lost the Lok Sabha seat in Mandi— the Chief Minister’s home district. Even the people of Mandi are unhappy with him. He failed to bring development for Mandi and instead confined himself to Seraj, his constituency. Further, he proved to be indecisive - a Chief Minister with no real control over the bureaucracy.
What is really the biggest factor favouring Congress?
Unemployment is the biggest issue. Row over police constables' recruitment is also a proven case. The question papers were sold for Rs 6 - 7 lakhs. The Chief Minister spoke about a CBI probe but never referred the case to the central agency. Corruption is also a major poll plank for congress. BJP’s state president had to resign following the PPE kits scam exposed by the media. There is the issue of the Old Pension Scheme (OPS) which will favour the Congress as we have announced to restore OPS in the first cabinet meeting, once the government is formed. Inflation is also a big factor.
There is factionalism in the party. How does it plan to tackle it and also match the resources and strength of the ruling BJP?
There is no factionalism in Congress. It died with Virbhadra Singh’s death. When Virbhadra Singh was alive he led one faction and another myself. Now, there is only one faction, which is called the Congress party.
How about resources?
In Himachal Pradesh, we don't need big resources to fight the polls. It's true the BJP has no dearth of it and can do whatever it wants but the BJP will not be able to buy votes. The people of Himachal are not for sale. They have a lot of self-esteem. The public sentiments are with us this time.
Congress is making promises like OPS, five lakh jobs and Rs 1,500 per month to every woman between 18 to 60 years of age. With the state's debt burden of Rs 72,000 cr and low resource reserves, where will the money come from? How will Congress finance development?
Where there is a will there's a way. We will raise resources. One lakh jobs will be provided in the first year as there are 63000 vacant posts in the government. We have given a guarantee to restore OPS in the first cabinet meeting.
The BJP is talking of ‘double engine’ growth...
The so-called ‘double-engine’ is a myth. It's always the leadership or a strong Chief Minister, whose vision for the state’s development matters. Jai Ram Thakur had an opportunity to extract maximum projects or funding from the centre because there is a BJP (same party) government. The ‘double engine’ is out of gear.
Don’t you feel Prime Minister Narendra Modi will be a factor? The BJP had been winning elections under him.
Prime Minister Modi is certainly a big name and his magic worked for the party in 2014 and 2019 in the state as well as when BJP swept the Congress out of power in 2017. Had Modi ji sanctioned Rs 10,000 cr financial package for Himachal Pradesh, a state he calls his second home, the people would have really loved and respected him. Remember how Atal Bihari Vajpayee and Dr Manmohan Singh helped us on many occasions. Modi ji comes frequently to Himachal Pradesh, talks about Sepu Vadi and Kichori of Mandi, Siddu of Kullu or Mandra of Chamba and returns. The assembly elections are fought on state issues, we will deal with the Modi factor in 2024.
Who is Chief Ministerial face for Congress in this election?
There is no Chief Ministerial face in the poll. We made Virbhadra Singh CM’s face in 2017 and Congress lost the election. This time our symbol, the 'Hand', is the Chief Ministerial face.
Are you also a contender for CM’s post?
Yes, definitely. I too have aspirations to be Chief Minister. But, my first job is to ensure that the party gets a comfortable majority. Then elected MLAs will choose a new CM after consultation with the high command. There is a lot of clarity on this within the party.
How about other contenders like PCC President Pratibha Singh and Mukesh Agnihotri, leader of Opposition?
Pratibha Singh stands nowhere. She was made PCC chief before the poll with the understanding to encash sympathy for Virbhadra Singh. She is not even fighting the election. Getting elected to the assembly is the first thing to be Chief Minister.