Himachal CM’s Sudden Departure To Delhi Fuels Speculations About Cabinet Expansion On Jan 7-8

Insiders say Himachal Pradesh Sukhwinder Singh Sukhu has not been able to work out Cabinet expansion due to intense lobbying by the MLAs.

Himachal Pradesh CM Sukhwinder Singh Sukhu left for Delhi on Thursday

Amid Himachal Pradesh Assembly’s ongoing winter session, Chief Minister Sukhwinder Singh Sukhu on Thursday flew to Delhi, fueling speculations of Cabinet expansion on this weekend.

Himachal Governor Rajendra Vishwanath Arlekar, who was slated to leave for Goa on Saturday, has extended his departure by a day. 

“Now Governor will leave for Goa on Sunday  i.e. January 8, instead of January 7,” confirmed a senior Himachal official to Outlook this afternoon.

An abrupt change in Arlekar’s travel plan hints at “important” engagement at Raj Bhawan, indicated to be the swearing-in ceremony of Cabinet members. It is understood the decision was taken at the behest of Sukhu. 

Earlier on Thursday, Arlekar was in Dharamshala where he addressed the first session of the Himachal assembly hours after the House elected five-time congress MLA Kuldeep Singh Pathania as new Speaker. The two were together that day in the assembly complex. Immediately after this, Sukhu left for Delhi in a special helicopter while Arlekar returned to Shimla on the official helicopter of the government.

Lobbying, consultations over Cabinet expansion

Sukhu has been under tremendous pressure from the newly-elected MLAs to constitute the Cabinet as it has already been weeks since he and Deputy Chief Minister Mukesh Agnihotri took oath in Shimla on December 11. Insiders say Sukhu could not work out Cabinet formation surely due to intense lobbying by the MLAs. 

Sukhu’s visit comes after the Congress high command summoned him to Delhi, second time within the past three days. He is expected to hold consultations with the central leadership of the party and finalise an appropriate date for the expansion without further delays.

The Congress government in Himachal has come under severe attack from the Opposition Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) in the state assembly. It has raised questions about an inordinate delay in Cabinet expansion despite the Congress having got a comfortable majority in the House.

In the assembly elections, the Congress won 40 seats in the 68-member House, reducing the BJP's strength to 25.

“This is a very strange situation. You (Congress) have convened the first session of the new assembly in absence of a properly functioning government. What happened to your promise to implement the Old Pension Scheme (OPS) within 10 days of formating the government,” said Himachal’s Leader of opposition Jai Ram Thakur.

What is further embarrassing for the Congress government is the fact that Sukhu has already given Cabinet ranks to non-legislators appointed as his Principal Political Advisor, Principal Media Advisor, and Principal advisor (IT and Innovations), all of whom are Congress leaders.

Under this situation, the elected MLAs expecting Cabinet berths have been completely clueless about Sukhu’s mind and also over the high command's stamp on their names. Many camped in Delhi for several days when Sukhu tested positive for coronavirus and was told to quarantine himself.

Before this, Sukhu led all his MLAs to Rajasthan to join Bharat Jodo Yatra of Rahul Gandhi. Yet he continued to attribute the delay as part of the normal consultation process and his own will to choose the right time for the Cabinet expansion.

Many believe the delay in Cabinet formation is result of infightings and pressures mounted by Himachal Pradesh Congress Committee (PCC) President Pratibha Singh to include some MLAs from her group, including her son Vikramaditya Singh, a two-time MLA from Shimla (Rural).

Atleast two other MLAs, former PCC chief Kuldeep Singh Rathoreand and Rajendra Rana, have been able to mobilise support from the party high command relating to their inclusion in the cabinet.

But Sukhu has just 10 vacancies in the Cabinet as the size of the Cabinet in Himachal cannot exceed 12, including CM and Deputy CM whose posts have already been filled.

There are chances that Sukhu may not fill-up all the vacant positions in the Cabinet, leaving the scope for future expansion to exercise his prerogative incase of pressures.  

All India Congress Committee (AICC) In-Charge of Himachal Rajeev Shukla, who has been instrumental in organising the Congress campaign and reaching a consensus on Sukhu's name as CM, has already hinted that expansion will take place after the assembly session. The session ended on Thursday, raising the hopes for the Cabinet to be in place this weekend.

In Dharamshala, before leaving for Delhi, Sukhu said, “You will come to know about the Cabinet expansion very soon.”