The Tough, Pathbreaking Journey Of Sukhwinder Sukhu To Himachal Pradesh CM And The Road Ahead

Sukhwinder Singh Sukhu has risen from being a son of a driver selling milk and newspapers to become the Chief Minister of Himachal Pradesh. In choosing him over the legacy of Virbhadra Singh, the Congress high command has played a significant, hopeful, and challenging game. Sukhu has task cut out for him.

Himachal Pradesh CM Sukhwinder Singh Sukhu.

At around 10:30 am on Monday, 60-year-old Mukesh Agnihotri, Leader of Opposition of Himachal Pradesh assembly until a few days ago and freshly sworn in as the Deputy Chief Minister, stood next to Oak River —Himachal’s CM's official residence— and waited with his motorcade for ‘CM Sahib’ — Sukhwinder Singh Sukhu.

Sukhu’s motorcade arrived soon and he got down from his car to accept greetings from Agnihotri and some Congress MLAs present there with him. Sukhu hugged Agnihotri warmy, held his hand, and invited him to drive together in his car to the Himachal secretariat.

The bonhomie between Sukhu and Agnihotri was perfect on day one, perhaps beyond accepted protocols, to ride past infighting and fierce battle over the chief ministerial post following the Congress party’s decisive election victory. However, that was not the end of the bonhomie on the first day.

Minutes after Sukhu settled in the chief minister’s chair after acknowledging the greetings of senior bureaucrats, Congress MLAs, and well-wishers, Himachal Pradesh Congress Committee (PCC) President Pratibha Singh arrived with her MLA son Vikramaditya Singh and a bunch of supporters to offer him bouquets and wishes on assuming the charge of Himachal CM. Sukhu was overwhelmed by the gesture.

“The bond between the party and government must not only be strong and trustful but it should also work to meet the aspirations of the people who voted the party to power with a lot of hopes,” said Pratibha after meeting Sukhu.

Protests, infighting long before bonhomie

Till three days before, however, Pratibha—a sitting MP and wife of former Himachal CM and Congress stalwart Virbhadra Singh— was pleading her own case for the Chief Minister’s post, emphatically reminding the All India Congress Committee (AICC) observers Bhupesh Baghel and Bhupendra Singh Hooda and Himachal in-charge Rajeev Shukla about the legacy she carries.

Pratibha’s supporters backed her claim and staged noisy protests outside the Himachal assembly complex where the meeting of newly-elected MLAs was called to elect their new leader. Notwithstanding the protests, the observers went by the majority MLAs who supported Sukhu. He was also the choice of Gandhi siblings for the chief ministership —the real high command— even as Congress President Mallikarjun Kharge was in the loop. 

The long shadow of Holly Lodge

Election of Sukhu was undoubtedly a blow to Holly Lodge — Virbhadra Singh’s residence that had been the Congress nerve centre of power for almost six decades. Whether in the power or Opposition, Virbhadra was always a central figure in the Congress since 1980s when he took the government’s reins by replacing Thakur Ram Lal.

Virbhadra was a six-time Himachal CM, a three-time Union minister, and a four-time PCC president. Though he never repeated his government except in 1985 but he could not be written off because of his style of politics that did not let his party detractors like Pt Sukh Ram, a former telecom minister, or Vidya Stokes, to replace him.

“Raja Sahib’s contributions to the state are not just notebook facts but are beyond description. Even when the Congress had no address or an office in Shimla, the party functioned from Holly Lodge in 1970s. It’s because of him that the Congress ruled the hearts of the people,” says Vikramaditya, now in his second term as MLA from Shimla (Rural), a seat Virbhadra won in 2012 to become chief minister for the sixth time. 

Significance, challenge of Sukhu as CM

The Congress high command’s decision to move beyond Virbhadra’s era of stewardship and reinvent itself by making Sukhu as the new face of Himachal Pradesh politics is both significant and challenging. 

Sukhu is now a four-time MLA from Nadaun in Hamirpur district. He has no political legacy or experience of working in the government. However, he is a hardcore organisational man. He is also known as Virbhadra Singh’s baiter. His acumen to strike a functional balance with his deputy Agnihotri on one side and Holly Lodge on the other because of old rivalries will really be a test.

“There will definitely be several irritants for him in the smooth running of the government. It’s not the first time too. His senior predecessors —Shanta Kumar, Prem Kumar Dhumal, Virbhadra Singh— had faced open dissidence and crisis. The next big hurdle for Sukhu will be the Cabinet formation. It's to be seen how Pratibha Singh bargains over Vikramaditya Singh’s induction and key portfolios,” says veteran journalist Prakash Lohumi. 

It is understood that when Pratibha decided to pull out of the chief ministerial race, she insisted that her son Vikramaditya should be given the post of deputy chief minister .This was turned down by the party because there were too many seniors including six- and five-time MLAs in the line for ministerial berths. Agnihotri was an exception because of his previous role as Leader of Opposition, so he was made Deputy Chief minister —a post carved out for the first time in Himachal. 

The not so easy road for Congress

Even though the Congress has won Himachal Pradesh elections decisively —by winning 40 of 68 seats— in its first electoral victory since 2018, the party has several fears. 


There are fears over not just infighting or sidelining of Pratibha’s camp. There are also fears that the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) will not digest its electoral defeat in Himachal so easily. 

Thus, for Sukhu, the challenge will not only be to deliver on the promises made in the election campaign —Old Pension Scheme (OPS), 1 lakh jobs, Rs 1,500 monthly pension for all women aged 18-60 years— but also to guard the government from internal rifts that could give the BJP a chance to send surprises like in Madhya Pradesh and Maharashtra or even the unsuccessful attempt in Rajasthan.


Thus the Congress made it a point to show its strength by inviting top leaders like Rahul Gandhi, Priyanka Gandhi, Congress President Kharge, Chhattisgarh CM Bhupesh Baghel, and Rajasthan CM Ashok Gehlot to the swearing-in-ceremony held at Shimla’s historic Ridge ground.

With eyes on 2024 polls, Sukhu has task cut out for him

Now that the Congress has won Himachal elections, it has its eyes on 2024 national elections. The Congress has been on a losing wicket since the rise of Prime Minister Narendra Modi in 2014 and his even bigger victory in 2019. In Himachal, the only exception for Congress in these years was the 2021 by-poll when Pratibha won from Mandi.


If Sukhu as CM delivers on ambitious poll promises well in the next one year, his popularity graph grows, and he succeeds in keeping the factional fighting at bay, turning the heat only on the BJP, the Congress gets an upper hand in the next Lok Sabha polls.

The Congress has done well in Sukhu's home district as well as the lower Himachal Pradesh region. This is the first time when the Congress has Chief Minister and Deputy Chief Minister from lower Himachal where the BJP had been doing well earlier. Both Shanta Kumar and Prem Kumar Dhumal of BJP hailed from this belt.


Former Chief Minister Jai Ram Thakur, who belonged to Mandi, has done well in his home district. The BJP won nine out of 10 assembly seats there. It will be a new challenge to the Congress, particularly Pratibha, to retain the foothold there as Lok Sabha member elected in 2021 by-poll.

How Sukhu, commoner’s Alto Man, gives Congress edge

Sukhu, being an organisational man, will be have task cut out for him. So far, he has had an unblemished career that gives him an edge over his party rivals.

Son of a state transport corporation driver who sold newspapers and milk to fund his studies, Sukhu rose from a simple rural background to become the Chief Minister of Himachal Pradesh is heart-warming. 


There was no love lost between Virbhadra and him even when Sukhu was the PCC president during 2013-19 — a term dominated by Virbhadra as Chief Minister. Thus, Pratibha opposing his name for leadership had its history and old rivalry which the Congress would hope has been bridged.

With Sukhu at the helm, the Congress has also found an opportunity to counter BJP on its charge of dynasty politics. Sukhu is known as Alto Man as he has mostly been seen in his Maruti car. With his Alto, he carved out niche as being simple and plain-speaking man with easy accessibility.


Sukhu was president of National Students Union of India (NSUI) for six years during 1989-95 and then, for the first time, got elected as a councillor of Shimla Municipal Corporation (SMC) in 1992. He was re-elected in 1997. He was president of the Himachal Pradesh Youth Congress during 1998-2008 and from 2008 to 2012. Finally, he was chosen as Himachal Congress cheif in 2013 after Virbhadra Singh became Chief Minister. 

Sukhu's rise to the chief minister’s post is a reward of his struggle and support of majority of MLAs and three Independents elected to new House. During his oath-taking ceremony, his 86-yr old mother Sankar Devi was a virtual show-stopper at the dais when Sukhu touched her feet affectionately.