Virbhadra has created a big mess, and needs to clean it up before polls
As he gets ready to lead the Congress into yet another poll battle, Himachal Pradesh Chief Minister Virbhadra Singh has a big mess in his backyard that he needs to clear first.
With a heavy baggage of anti-incumbency weighing down his shoulders, he has to ensure that he is able to disseminate the right message to the people on the ground if he wants the grand old party to come back into power in this hill state.
Field day for bureaucrats
The mess that Virbhadra finds himself in has been accumulated on various fronts. Primary among them is the unhappiness among the people on how he has handled the top-level bureaucracy in the state.
“The babus are simply having a field day. We need a Chief Minister who can take them to task. I live in a locality of second rung bureaucrats. Just imagine their lifestyle entering their offices not before 11 am, two hours of lunch break spent basking in the sun and winding up by 5 pm. You can imagine how much they would be working and the ones above them must be having a much more lavish life,” said a political observer based in Shimla.
There is also resentment among the bureaucrats on Singh having favoured officials from the Kinnaur district and handing them all the plum postings in the Chief Minister's Office (CMO).
“It is not only the people from the Kinnaur district who are calling the shots that has peeved the officials from other districts. There is also major resentment over Virbhadra having appointed a large number of his loyalist babus who have retired. People often smirk, saying that the CMO is being run by 'tired and retired' officials. This is neither a good precedent that he is setting, nor does it send a good message down the bureaucratic hierarchy,” said a senior mediaperson based in Shimla.
Be it plum posting after retirement or extension of service to the retirees, it is babus who are running the show. Recently, an IAS officer, Mohan Chauhan, was made a member of the Himachal Pradesh Public Service Commission, soon after retirement.
Another two top IAS officers, Narender Chauhan and Vidya Chander Pharka, are waiting in the wings for placements on some important positions after their retirement.
Observers say that apart from the babus, many 'Raja bhakts' in lower rungs of bureaucracy and even the media are enjoying extensions or re-employment or postings in boards or corporations and other bodies like the Public Service Commission. It is being asserted by the people that 'royalty and loyalty' have been going hand-in-hand in the state for quite sometime.
The bureaucratic set up had witnessed an upheaval last year when Virbhadra had gone on to appoint Pharka as the chief secretary, superseding three additional chief secretaries – Vineet Chaudhary, his wife Upma Chaudhary and Deepak Sanan. It got embarrassing for Virbhadra when he had to appoint both Vineet Chaudhary and Sanan as 'principal advisors' following a Central Administrative Tribunal (CAT) order. The aggrieved officers had proceeded on leave after Pharka's appointment. Meanwhile, Upma has been appointed as the first woman director of the Lal Bahadur Shastri National Academy of Administration at Mussoorie. Sanan retired on 31 January this year.
Lack of second-rung leaders
Even in the Congress party's own affairs, Virbhadra is often accused of not having allowed the second rung of the party to grow. While his loyalists contend that he is the only leader who can keep the party united in the state, his detractors are of the view that the party desperately needs a youth-driven second rung leadership in the state in the changing circumstances. “We are often confounded by the question 'After Virbhadra, who?', and we have to look here and there for answers. It is high time that we have leaders at the top with a pan-Himachal following,” said a Congress worker in Solan.
The party worker said that today, there was talk of the possibility of Prem Kumar Dhumal being replaced by JP Nadda in the BJP, but when it came to the Congress, the buck stopped at Virbhadra.
High Court acting tough
More recently, Virbhadra received a setback when the state High Court questioned his government's passing of the Himachal Pradesh Town and Country Planning Regularisation Amendment Act, which gives a chance to the public to regularise their illegal buildings.
A division bench of the court has restrained the authorities from taking any final decision on the applications submitted.
The order was reportedly given on a petition filed by a local advocate alleging that the action of the state government regarding regularising unauthorised construction is illegal, and against the interest of the public at large.
The state Assembly had passed the Bill in this regard in August last year, which included the provision to regularise all construction on 'as is where is basis'. The next hearing in the case is on 17 April.
Both the BJP and the Congress governments have shamelessly allowed illegal construction to take place in the hill state, paying no heed to the state being a high seismic zone with a fragile ecology. They have just looked at petty political gains.
“The High Court stepping in to restrain the authorities is a slap on the face of the state government that has tried to impose the retention policy despite reservations even from the Governor. They have thrown all norms to the wind for their petty goals,” says Prem Singh Tanganiya, an RTI activist who has been relentlessly fighting against the government playing into the hands of the builder lobby over the last decade. An adverse order in the matter from the court coming just a few months ahead of the polls would be very damaging for the Congress-led state government.
Then there are, of course, the on-going developments in the case of alleged disproportionate assets accumulated by Virbhadra and his family. No matter what happens in the days to come, he will have to answer questions every time the issue is raised.
“It is going to take years before a verdict comes in the case. But it will surely be a campaign issue which his detractors will try to cash-in on in the days to come,” said a senior mediaperson based in Shimla.
Virbhadra's son and Himachal Pradesh Youth Congress president Vikramaditya Singh has taken the onus of fighting the contentious issue in the political battlefield. He has condemned the BJP for unleashing political vendetta and malicious propaganda against the chief minister, and attempting to influence the judiciary in the matter.
The BJP leadership in the state has been seeking Virbhadra's resignation almost daily, following the attachment of his property and the CBI filing a chargesheet in the matter. Vikramaditya has said that since the formation of the Congress government, the BJP has been hatching conspiracies against Virbhadra to destabilise the democratically-elected government.
He said people are well aware of how the BJP misused the investigation agencies and false cases were framed by putting pressure on them. Now, the same leaders are trying to influence the judicial system through their government.