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Virbhadra effect: Sushil Shinde will find it tough saving Congress in Himachal

Rajeev Khanna | Updated on: 25 July 2017, 17:35 IST
(Arya Sharma/Catch News)

Congress's newly appointed general secretary-in-charge for Himachal Pradesh Sushil Kumar Shinde has his hands full.

Managing the Grand Old party in the poll-bound state will surely be one of the toughest assignments for the former Union home minister. The state may be small, but it has a multitude of challenges awaiting Shinde.

Shinde was brought in Saturday after Ambika Soni was relieved from looking after Himachal and Uttarakhand for health reasons. She will focus only on Jammu and Kashmir now. Ranjeet Ranjan was named as the secretary of All-India Congress Committee (AICC) for Himachal Pradesh.

Shinde's challenge begins with the general perception that the Congress faces an uphill task in the Himachal Assembly election, due by the end of this year. The hilly state has been generally voting out governments for the last four decades. That should worry Congress.

But since there is no scientific basis to this perception, Congress does stand a chance of retaining power despite odds and anti-incumbency stacked against it.


The infighting

The first task for Shinde, as well as the party high command, would be to get Chief Minister Virbhadra Singh and Himachal Pradesh Congress Committee chief Sukhvinder Singh Sukhu to bury the hatchet.

The two have been squabbling for some time and are now washing their dirty linen in public. They have been summoned by the party high command Tuesday and it is being expected the duo will be told to work together.

“Virbhadra, no doubt, is far more experienced and a powerful leader. But looking at the belligerence Sukhu has shown over the last two months, one is compelled to think he has some support from lobbies interested in state politics,” said a Shimla-based observer.

The two have been carrying out signature campaigns getting party functionaries to sign in their support.

The CM has reportedly been seeking Sukhu's ouster to improve coordination. The party chief, on the other hand, has been more active on the ground activating

various cells of the party. Both have released damning statements about the other.

Things came to a head earlier this month during Congress presidential candidate Meira Kumar's Shimla visit. Immediately after she left her departure, Virbhadra questioned whether there was any party organisation left in the state. Sukhu retorted, saying the units at district-, block- and booth-levels not only exist but are functioning towards improving the party’s prospect in elections.

The infighting took a toll in the recently concluded Shimla Municipal Corporation elections: The BJP managed a razor-thin majority and emerged victorious for the first time.

People in Shimla blamed the two leaders for fielding rebel candidates in several wards and not getting down to campaigning properly.

Sukhu attacked Virbhadra saying that had the Congress won the three seats in the Shimla rural Assembly constituency (represented by the CM), the Congress would have been in power in the corporation.

The latest in this tussle are reports of Sukhu getting a survey done to find the most popular leaders for the Assembly elections. Sukhu has reportedly sought feedback from the general public from every panchayat in the 68 Assembly segments about the performance of the sitting Congress MLAs and also the candidates that had lost the last time. This survey was aimed at deciding the allotment of party tickets at the time of polls.


One-horse carriage

Shinde also has another major dilemma to address. Since Virbhadra did not allow any second line of leadership to develop in the state, the Congress would be left high and dry if it has to choose an alternate face to lead the poll battle.

The incumbent CM faces charges of money laundering and the shadow of arrest looms large over him. Because his image has also got a beating due to the recent case of rape and murder of a 15-year-old girl in Kotkhai – the Congress has a major challenge at hand.

The party will automatically be on the back foot if it makes Virbhadra the face of its poll campaign. But it hardly has any other leader with a pan-Himachal presence.

The question – 'If not Virbhadra then who?' – is likely to haunt Shinde for months to come.


BJP ahead already?

The BJP has already kickstarted its campaign with a rally in April where Prime Minister Narendra Modi made the biting remark – that the CM spends more time with lawyers than with common people.

This point is being played up by the party at every public programme. The developments in the Kotkhai rape and murder case that saw Virbhadra reportedly making immature statements has provided more cannon fodder to the BJP.

The challenge of battling the routine anti-incumbency on governance issues will also have to be dealt with by Shinde.

Virbhadra's regime has been marked by inconsistencies like –

– First cancelling and then handing over land to yoga guru Baba Ramdev's Patanjali Trust

– Giving extensions to his coterie of bureaucrats, controversial appointments at the top level

– His dabbling with the soft Hindutva etc.

With his vast political experience in bigger states like Maharashtra and also at the Centre, it remains to be seen how Shinde addresses these issues amid an ongoing race against time.


First published: 25 July 2017, 17:35 IST