Himachal Pradesh CM Sukhwinder Singh Sukhu Has Task Cut Out For Him In 2023

Sukhwinder Singh Sukhu has to not just deliver on electoral promises but to prepare the groundwork for Congress in Himachal for the 2024 general elections.

Congress leader Sukhwinder Singh Sukhu taking oath as Himachal Pradesh Chief Minister

While the year 2022 honoured the ‘rivaj’ —custom— of changing the party in power every five years in Himachal Pradesh, it parted with the custom of veterans being sworn in as Chief Ministers as Sukhwinder Singh Sukhu rose to become CM for the first time.   

The rise of four-time MLA Sukhu, 58, marks a new beginning in Himachal and does away with the era of political elites. 

Though the transition has been smooth and effortless in the backdrop of the infighting in the Congress, the first-time CM Sukhu has several new challenges in the new year, one of which is the formation of the Cabinet and striking a balance of power around him. He will always have a risk of facing pressures from Himachal Pradesh Congress Committee (PCC) President Pratibha Singh, a contender for the post of the chief minister snubbed by the Congress high command in favour of Sukhu despite her invoking the “legacy” of her late husband Virbhadra Singh. 

Sukhu faces uphill task but has some edge

Sukhu, whose rise to the Chief Minister of Himachal is attributed to his own struggles, faces a litmus test not just in the sphere of governance but also in delivering on lofty promises his party made in the elections, one of those being the implementation of Old Pension Scheme (OPS). 

Thus Sukhu has to walk a tightrope. His every action will have a bearing on the stability of the Congress government and will be compared with predecessors, including six-time Himachal CM Virbhadra. However, he is at an advantage because most seniors, such as Kaul Singh Thakur, Ram Lal Thakur, Asha Kumari, and Thakur Singh Bharmouri, lost their elections and Virbhadra —Sukhu’s strongest opponent— is no more. 

Backing of the Gandhis makes Sukhu secure against rebellion from the rivals, particularly from Holly Lodge, Virbhadra’s bungalow and symbol of his legacy. Yet much will depend on Sukhu’s political acumen and sustained effort at balancing, even in dealing with his Deputy Chief Minister Mukesh Agnihotri.

Fifth-term MLA Agnihotri was also a contender to the post of the chief minister. In the last assembly, he served as the Leader of Opposition. Many believe he could become a parallel power centre in the government and MLAs who would be denied Cabinet position may rally around him.

The contest for Cabinet berths

Till now, it’s Sukhu and Agnihotri who are the faces of the Congress government while 38 other MLAs are lobbying hard for Cabinet berths. Of these 38 MLAs, Sukhu has to choose 10 for induction in the Cabinet. The total strength of the Cabinet is 12, including the CM and Deputy CM. Besides them, two MLAs are to be chosen as Speaker and Deputy Speaker.

While Sukhu loyalists expect the lion’s share in the Cabinet, PCC President Pratibha, who lost the race to be the Chief Minister, wants not only her son Vikramaditya Singh —a two-time MLA— to be part of the government but also expects a fair deal with her group to be accommodated. Many believe it’s because of the pressures from MLAs that Sukhu has not been able to constitute the Cabinet so far. Then there are considerations of caste and religion and creating the right mix of senior and young faces.

Sukhu rejects infighting, upbeat about fulfilling promises

Sukhu rejected the perception that infighting or lobbying is a reason for delay. 

He told Outlook, “The Cabinet will soon be in place. Consultations have been held with the party high command. A core team of MLA is already there assisting me. Once the assembly session is held, slated on January 4-6 at Dharamshala, I will form the Cabinet. There is no pressure on me.” 

But what about the decision on OPS — the Congress had promised to implement it within 10 days of forming the government? 

Sukhu said, “I have already done an exercise on this. A formula has been worked out. Accordingly, the decision will be taken in the first meeting of the Cabinet. It will be done through state resources as we know the Centre is unwilling to help.”

Two other key promises of Rs 1,500 per month to all women aged 18-60 and 1 lakh jobs are also going to be an uphill task for the Sukhu-led Congress government. Then there are also promises to give 300 units of free power and scheme of milk procurements.

The road is still not smooth for Congress

The Kangra politics makes the road tough for Sukhu since it is the biggest district which holds key to the formation of any government. Virbhadra Singh, during his tenures, had always tried to bridge the regional balance between old Himachal Pradesh and the new area of Kangra. Yet he could not return to power in succession as Kangra reversed the mandate every five years.

The Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) may have lost power, having won only 25 seats, but the difference between the vote share of two parties is just 0.91 per cent. The BJP forming a strong opposition led by former Chief Minister Jai Ram Thakur (now leader of opposition) and Congress, a divided house, could make Sukhu’s tasks tough.

Closure of more than 500 institutions opened during the BJP tenure by Sukhu and a paper leak racket exposed last month in recruitment to Junior Office Assistants (JOAs) have given the BJP a reason to target the Congress. Moreover, the Sukhu government has not set out his developmental priorities and has not laid out a plan about how to bring the projects like Mega Bulk Drug Park, medical device park, and Baddi railway line sanctioned by the Centre. 


Besides all of these tough tasks, Sukhu will also face the tough task of preparing the groundwork for Congress for the 2024 general elections.