Monday, Aug 08, 2022

Himachal Evaluates Leadership Better, BJP Victories Elsewhere Won’t Matter Here: Mukesh Agnihotri

Congress leader and Himachal Pradesh’s Leader of Opposition Mukesh Agnihotri told Outlook the top priority is to get a majority in the assembly and the party high command would then decide who will be the chief minister.

Leader of Opposition of Himachal Pradesh Mukesh Agnihotri
Leader of Opposition of Himachal Pradesh Mukesh Agnihotri

The poll scenes are yet to take a final shape in Himachal Pradesh but two rivals —ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and Opposition Congress— have already got embroiled in an intense war of words. Chief Minister Jai Ram Thakur and Leader of opposition Mukesh Agnihotri are in direct confrontation. 

What is really in store for the BJP? Will Congress be able to bounce back to power in absence of leaders like Virbhadra Singh — whose parliamentarian wife Pratibha Singh was recently named as Pradesh Congress Committee President. Besides Pratibha’s elevation to the top party post, two key leaders —Mukesh Agnihotri and Sukhwinder Singh, a former PCC Chief— have also got responsibilities to collectively lead the party to the polls. 

Ashwani Sharma spoke to Mukesh Angihotri, who is a journalist-turned-politician, to seek answers to various issues and how he views his party’s prospects in upcoming elections that are likely to be held by this year’s end.    

Chief Minister Jai Ram Thakur has given a slogan – Satta Nahin, Riwaaj Badalenge (No change of power, but change in the custom). It’s a clear resolve to buck the trend of alternating power between BJP and Congress.

The BJP is champion in coining slogans to fool people. He is doing exactly what Modi ji [Prime Minister Narendra Modi] has been doing all these years in the country –only jumlebaazi. The reality is that the Congress will form the next government. Our slogan is – Sarkar Badlo, Halat Badlo (Change the government, change conditions).

Do you mean to say that BJP’s victory in Uttar Pradesh, Uttarakhand, Manipur and Goa will have no bearing in Himachal Pradesh?

Exactly. There is hardly a similarity in the political conditions in Himachal Pradesh vis-a-vis UP, Manipur, Goa or even Uttarakhand. The politics in this state is very different. People evaluate their leadership in a much better way than elsewhere. Mark my words today – the Congress revival in the country will start from Himachal Pradesh. We are on a comeback trail.

What are your reasons for such confidence?

There are multiple reasons. Firstly, the people want change. The chief minister and his team have badly flopped. No development happened in the state under Jai Ram Thakur. The so-called double engine is a complete myth. The Centre has not given a single penny to the state except the normal grants available under different schemes. 

The state is under heavy debt. By the time Jai Ram Thakur leaves, the debt burden will exceed Rs 80,000 crores, of which Rs 40,000 crores would be due to his wrongdoing in four and half years. The law-and-order situation is the worst. The state is in the grip of mafias viz drug mafia, liquor mafia, mining mafia, recruitment mafia and scrap mafia are few to name. 

Why hasn't the Opposition been able to highlight any serious corruption against the BJP government during four-and-a-half years?

Well, this is a big misconception which the chief minister has. He thinks nobody, including Opposition, could get inkling of those big scams, bunglings, financial frauds, and nepotism that happened under him. We have set up a committee which is collecting proof of all the scams – how rules were subverted to benefit eight or nine contractors, how undue benefits worth hundreds of crores were given to them, how most recruitments were done through backdoors. Merit was compromised in appointments to high positions.

Chief Minister Jai Ram Thakur takes pride in ending ‘politics of vendetta’ in Himachal Pradesh as was the case during Virbhadra Singh and Prem Kumar Dhumal tenures.

He may not have filed vigilance cases against political opponents, but they tried their best to do so. However, they found nothing illegal against us despite their best efforts. Nevertheless, the chief minister used the police, CID, vigilance and administrative machinery to arm-twist, harm, and victimise opponents. Even BJP leaders of rival groups were subjected to unfair treatment. 

As nothing worked, the chief minister has created a sharp regional divide in the state while leaders like Virbhadra Singh and Prem Kumar Dhumal had always tried to bridge this emotional bond between old and new Himachal areas. 

Prime Minister Narendra Modi during his recent visits has given his pat to Chief Minister Jai Ram Thakur and has spoken highly of him and his leadership. 

Whenever a prime minister visits any state ruled by his own party, especially during the election year, he has to praise the chief minister. The fact remains that the development is not visible on the ground. Jai Ram Thakur’s dream project of building a greenfield international airport in his home district of Mandi has made no headway on surface. 

All 69 national highways or four-lane projects promised for Rs 65,000 crores are nowhere. The development has happened only in two constituencies – one, in his own [Seraj], and other is that of his right hand and Cabinet minister Mohinder Singh by diverting funds from other 66 constituencies.

What is Congress’s roadmap for the state and its people?

Permanent jobs to eligible persons on merit with all pensionary benefits will be the biggest resolve of the Congress. The policy of out-sourcing jobs, backdoor recruitments and temporary jobs will be scrapped. 

We will enact and amend laws to deal with drug mafia and liquor mafia. Chitta —the deadliest form of psychotropic drug smuggled to Himachal— has reached the state's tribal belt and interiors. 

All illegal purchases done by the government will be probed.

Will the Congress be able to match the BJP's well-oiled organisational machinery, leadership and limitless resources in the elections?

The BJP is not free from factional politics. There is a simmering tussle within its ranks. Till now, it has remained under wraps but during the elections, it is going to resurface. Did we not win Mandi by-poll —a prized BJP Lok Sabha seat— apart from three assemblies? People in Himachal Pradesh are highly educated and politically aware. They know which way they have to vote to oust the government.

BJP is heavily banking on PM Narendra Modi for its mission Repeat 2022. The Congress does not have any one to match his appeal in the state.

It’s true. He is BJP’s biggest star campaigner. We are not afraid of his frequent visits to the state ahead of the polls. But his last roadshow at Dharamshala was a big flop. There are issues like rising prices, inflation, unemployment. and the Agnipath scheme. I believe overplaying Modi will rather boomerang on the BJP.

Who is Congress’s CM face in Himachal Pradesh?

The recent experience in different poll-bound states is not very pleasant. What happened in our neighbourhood Punjab when Charanjit Singh Channi was named as the CM candidate? Pushkar Singh Dhami lost in Uttarakhand and earlier Prem Kumar Dhumal —a CM face of the BJP in 2017— lost his election. Our first aim is to get elected and to score a majority in the assembly. Thereafter the party high command will take a call as to who should be the chief minister to lead the next government. 

Don’t you think Aam Aadmi Party will also be a factor in elections this time after Punjab victory?

AAP has no presence in Himachal Pradesh. It's not a factor too.