Himachal Cabinet Expansion: A Tight Ropewalk For Congress In Balancing Caste, Regions And Other Factions

The newly elected Congress government in Himachal Pradesh is faced with the daunting task of striking a balance between regions, castes, and factions in the cabinet expansion plans.

Himachal Pradesh CM Sukhwinder Singh Sukhu left for Delhi on Thursday

The 28-day-old Congress government in Himachal Pradesh is working on the expansion plans of the state cabinet where Sukhvinder Singh Sukhu and Mukesh Agnihotri took their oaths as Chief Minister and Deputy Chief Minister respectively about four weeks ago. Sukhu has to undergo an intricate and humongous exercise in order to accommodate both his supporters and State Congress Chief Pratibha Singh's faction.

The chief minister is visiting the Congress high command in Delhi for consultations and is expected to return on Saturday. Aspirants for ministerial berths are hoping that the names of new ministers would be announced in a day or two. Sukhu had maintained that the cabinet expansion would be in consultation with the high command, the results of which would be a mix of professionals, youth, and representatives of all sections. 

The Congress party swept 40 out of 68 assembly seats in the Assembly Elections including 10 seats from Kangra, 7 from Shimla, 4 each in Una, Solan, and Hamirpur, 3 in Sirmaur, 2 each in Chamba and Kullu, and 1 each in Mandi, Bilaspur, Kinnaur and Lahaul, and Spiti districts, all of which need to be represented.
Three out of 12 districts have been given representation --- Sukhu from Hamirpur, Agnihotri from Una, and 5-times Bhatiyyat MLA Kuldeep Pathania was appointed as the Vidhan Sabha Speaker from Chamba. From the tribal areas of Lahaul, Spiti, and Kinnaur, one representation is expected. While 10 Congress MLAs in Kangra and 7 in Shimla are expected to get an adequate share in the cabinet. 

On his first visit to Kangra after assuming the CM office of the hill state, Sukhu had said, "I heavily honour the massive mandate given by the people of the Kangra in the assembly elections and I assure that special focus would be laid for the development of the district in all spheres." 

Meanwhile, the former ministers are also asserting their rights to claim their place in the cabinet. A large number of second and third-time MLAs are aspiring for the ministerial berth, and both Sukhu and Pratibha (state Congress chief) factions are seeking cabinet posts for their supporters. What plan will the party and CM devise in order to reconcile the conflicting claims is unknown and yet to unfold.

Front runners for cabinet posts include Chander Kumar from Jawali in Kangra, a former minister and former Lok Sabha member, oldest MLA Dhani Ram Shandil from Solan, a former minister, and ex-Lok Sabha member. Former minister Sudhir Sharma from Dharamshala in Kangra, six-time MLA Harshvardhan Chauhan from Shillai in Sirmaur, and former deputy speaker Jagat Singh Negi from Kinnaur are also geared up for the cabinet race.

Vikramaditya Singh, son of former CM Virbhadra Singh, a two-times MLA from Shimla (Rural) and four-times MLA from Jubbal- Kotkhai Rohit Thakur, grandson of former Chief Minister Ram Lal Thakur are also among hot contenders besides Sunder Singh Thakur from Kullu and Rajesh Dharmani from Ghumarwin. The face of the business community, Ashish Butail from Palampur in Kangra, and Chandrashekhar (Dharampur), the lone Congress MLA from Mandi district are also in the race.

The cabinet expansion has become a challenging and peculiar situation for Sukhu as well as the national party in Shimla district as Sukhu's close aides and multiple-time MLAs are all in the race. Three-times MLA from Kasumpti Anirudh Singh, who is close to Sukhu and defeated sitting urban development minister Suresh Bhardwaj, four-times MLA from Rampur Nand Lal, three-times MLA from Rohru Mohan Lal Brakta, and former Congress state president Kuldeep Rathore, all Instrumental in the Congress win in Mandi Lok Sabha and three assembly by-elections in 2021, are contending for ministerial posts.

(With PTI inputs)