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Going strong against all odds: what makes Virbhadra tick in Himachal?

Rajeev Khanna | Updated on: 14 July 2016, 19:39 IST
The survivor
  • Himachal Pradesh Chief Minister Virbhadra Singh has the odds stacked against him
  • He is currently battling corruption charges, but remains the Congress\'s unanimous choice to lead the state
The opposition
  • Within the party, there is no leader who has his mass appeal or the stature to stand up to the high command
  • Even the BJP is wary of engineering a revolt against him, after setbacks in Uttarakhand and Arunachal
More in the story
  • The present state of the corruption case against Singh
  • Who are the potential challengers to his throne, and why they don\'t stand much of a chance

Time and again, Himachal Pradesh Chief Minister Virbhadra Singh has been in situations where the odds have been stacked against him. And time and again, he has defied them to emerge as a great survivor.

With the Opposition BJP gunning for him over the alleged money laundering case being probed by the Enforcement Directorate, and the recent arrest of LIC agent Anand Chauhan in the case, Singh once again got unanimous support from within the Congress, in the form of a one line resolution expressing faith in his leadership.

Also read- Why are ED and CBI hunting down Himachal CM Virbhadra Singh?

Observers point out that this is not the first time that Singh is in the dock. He has meticulously survived everything that has come his way over the last three decades, be it a result of Opposition attacks or dissidence within his own party.

So, what is it that keeps Singh ticking against all odds?

Mass appeal

The very first point in his favour is that Singh is the only mass leader in the Congress with a pan-Himachal Pradesh appeal. "No other leader has such a clout across the state. The popularity of most of them is confined mainly to their individual constituencies. This point has been accepted by the Congress high command as well," said a political observer in Shimla.

The observer added that this phenomenon can be explained in the context of the Congress having to fall back on him repeatedly.

Congress has twice made Kaul Singh Thakur the state chief. And both times it had to bring Singh back

"Twice, it made cabinet minister and senior party leader Kaul Singh Thakur the Pradesh Congress Committee (PCC) chief, thinking that he would lead the party into the poll battles. And on both the occasions, it had to bring Singh back right before the polls.

"This even happened the last time: Singh was brought back to lead the party into the previous Assembly polls, despite him having quit as a Central minister in 2012, in the wake of the allegations that he and his family members had reportedly amassed wealth worth Rs 6.1 crore from unknown sources of income during 2009-2011," she said.

Experience matters

The second factor in Singh's favour is that he happens to be the most experienced and well-entrenched Congress leader in the state at present.

Almost all his contemporaries, who could have been his replacements have either passed away or have gone into oblivion. These include the likes of Sukh Ram, Narain Chand Parasher, JBL Khachi, Thakur Ram Lal etc.

Vidya Stokes is the only one of that generation who is still active in politics. But Singh's fellow octogenarian has made up with him, and is one of his foremost supporters these days.

"Both Singh, as well as the Congress party, did not allow a second line of leadership to develop in Himachal Pradesh. The fear of disintegration of the party remains alive among party workers, in the event of Singh not being there. This has made him indispensable for the party," said another political observer and senior media person from Shimla.

He pointed out that Singh had faced the most potent challenge to his leadership in the party from Sukh Ram when PV Narasimha Rao was the Prime Minister, and the latter was a Union cabinet minister. "At that time, Sukh Ram apparently had a greater support among the Congress MLAs and leaders in the state. But luck was on Singh's side as Sukh Ram got embroiled in a telecom scandal, and gradually went into oblivion," he added.

Presently, the CM has no opposition within Himachal Pradesh. Asha Kumari, who had emerged as one of his critics, recently lost her sheen when she was convicted in a land grab case, although her sentence was later suspended by the High Court.

Asha Kumari, who had emerged as one of Singh's critics, recently lost her sheen in a land grab case

With the party having made her the person in charge of Punjab, Kumari is likely to remain busy in the poll-bound state.

"Meanwhile Singh has roped in one of his biggest critics, Vijay Singh Mankotia, and despite his odd tantrums, cabinet minister GS Bali hardly carries any weight," the political observer added.

Standing up to high command

One of the things that has repeatedly worked for Singh is his toughness in the face of the Congress high command. He has never cowed down before the central leadership, and has had his way.

"This quality of brinkmanship has hardly been shown by any other Congress leader. Hence, he has never been down and out," said a mediaperson in Chandigarh, who has been covering Himachal for almost two decades.

The Congress high command itself is trying to resurrect the party at the national level after the drubbings in the 2014 Lok Sabha and subsequent Assembly polls. This is why it can hardly afford to take up the issue of a leadership change in a state like Himachal.

Sources in Shimla point out that despite criticism, and people flagging the issue repeatedly at different forums, Singh has exhibited his tendency to accommodate his loyalists at all costs. Perhaps this is explained by his obliging a large number of them by appointing them to more than 45 posts of vice chairman and chairman of various boards and corporations.

BJP's fear

In the present scenario, observers say that after having eaten crow in both Uttarakhand and Arunachal Pradesh, the BJP is wary of taking things too far. There is also a fear in the BJP camp that trying to pull the rug from under Singh's feet might prove counterproductive, and result in sympathy for the latter.

With Himachal having traditionally voted in the two parties alternatively, BJP workers are hoping that they will form the next government.

The BJP has to first put its own house in order before it takes on the Congress in the next poll battle in late 2017, and for that it would need sometime. But nevertheless, it continues its war of words against Singh and the Congress government.

Reacting to the recent cabinet meet after arrest of LIC agent Chauhan, the BJP has ridiculed Singh for the hurriedly-called meeting, and for putting pressure on his cabinet colleagues to extend support to him.

BJP has to put its own house in order before it takes on the Congress in the polls in late 2017

State BJP president Satpal Singh Satti reportedly said: "The Congress could have saved itself from supporting the Chief Minister, who was facing corruption charges, but it lost this opportunity, and is seen supporting corruption."

This reaction came after a government spokesman had said: "It was noted that the clamour by members of BJP for the resignation of the Chief Minister is not only absurd, but also exposes their utter disregard for the rule of law. Instead of showing respect and trust in the law and justice system of the country, some BJP leaders, having no popular support, seek to circumvent the legal process to dislodge a democratically-elected, popular Chief Minister."

Edited by Shreyas Sharma

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First published: 14 July 2016, 19:39 IST