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Virbhadra threatens to hang up his boots: Is he serious or is this just another pre-poll strategy?

Rajeev Khanna | Updated on: 29 August 2017, 15:34 IST
(Keshav Singh/Hindustan Times via Getty Images)

Himachal Pradesh Chief Minister Virbhadra Singh has stunned both his colleagues in the government as well as the Congress high command by threatening to hang up his boots. He has threatened that he will not fight the forthcoming polls.

But a large section of Himachalis are seeing this as another round of Virbhadra throwing tantrums and resorting to pressure tactics to have his way just as he had done prior to the last Assembly polls.

The question is will he have his way again?

It is being pointed out that there is a lot of difference between the scenario then and now. His threat has also found support from his cabinet colleague Prakash Chaudhari who has said that he too would not contest the polls if Virbhadra Singh leaves electoral politics.

It was at the Congress Legislature Party (CLP) meeting on the sidelines of the Assembly session last week that Virbhadra said that he has no intentions of contesting the Assembly elections owing to the state of affairs in the Congress party.

In an emotional address to his party colleagues, he said, “Whatever I am today is because of the party which has given me everything. I wish to retire from politics gracefully.”

While exchanging pleasantries with the Leader of Opposition Prem Kumar Dhumal after the session got over, he said, “I will not be in the election arena but all the best to you.”

He shook hands with all the BJP legislators after walking across to their tables in the Assembly.

“I do not wish to be belittled anymore within the party as everyone seems to be going his own way. In case anybody needs me to campaign, I will be available,” he assured his party men at the CLP meet.

Virbhadra also advised the Congress MLAs to adopt an aggressive stance. “Our government has done a lot of work but we seem to be lacking in publicising the good work. So reach out to the people and counter the BJP propaganda,” he said.

He was also upset at the manner in which the Congress MLAs failed to counter the BJP attacks during this session of the state Assembly.

On Sunday, his loyalist and cabinet minister Prakash Chaudhari came out saying that said he would not contest the Assembly poll if Virbhadra departs from electoral politics.

This is being seen as the voice of the Virbhadra loyalists who want the Congress high command to give a free hand to Virbhadra ahead of the Assembly polls. At a District Congress Committee Sammelan at Mandi, Chaudhari went on to say – “Himachal mein Congress ka doosra naam Virbhadra hai (In Himachal, Congress is synonymous to Virbhadra).”

Throwing a fit?

But there is a large section of Himachali political observers including party insiders who see Virbhadra's statement on hanging his boots as a 'fresh round of tantrums'. They are drawing parallels with the developments in the Congress ahead of 2012 when Virbhadra had been successful in becoming the Pradesh Congress Committee (PCC) chairman and the chief minister.

“It was in this month of August only last time that he had threatened to leave the party. He had wanted his man as the PCC chief and had been pressing hard for an appointment of his loyalist Gangu Ram Musafir. At the eleventh hour, he asked the party high command to make him the PCC chief and was successful. Let us see how the party deals with the scenario this time,” said a party insider.

But at the same time, it is being pointed that there is a major difference in the prevailing political conditions of 2012 and this time.

At that time, the party was keenly eying a poll victory emboldened by the electoral trend of Himachal choosing a government led by alternate parties every five years and the anti incumbency faced by the Dhumal government.

“At that point of time he was neither the leader of opposition and had also quit as a union minister. He had managed to get himself declared the chairman of the poll campaign committee by the party vice president Rahul Gandhi in July. But this time around he is the one who has been in the driving seat and is facing the heat of anti incumbency,” said a Congressman.

On the defensive?

It is being pointed that Virbhadra's tone and tenor have changed ever since the new party in-charge for Himachal, Sushil Kumar Shinde said that the forthcoming polls would be fought under a collective leadership with no chief ministerial face.

For the last several months he has been trying to get the state party president Sukhvinder Singh Sukhu removed and this has led to large scale infighting between the two groups trying to out do each other before the party high command.

Observers say that the party is rattled at the prospect of his leaving the poll arena when the polls are barely three months away since he remains the most popular Congress leader with a pan-Himachal popularity.

But at the same time, it needs to be pointed that Sukhu has managed to beef up the organisation at the ground level.

“The party anyways is facing an uphill task. The party can think of putting forth a new leader, preferably from Virbhadra's rival camp, who not only manages to ensure the victory of party candidates in the forthcoming polls but also get the preparations going for the 2019 polls,” pointed out an observer.

There is another perception doing the rounds in the public on Virbhadra trying to carve out a path of growth within the party for his son Vikramaditya Singh who is at present the Youth Congress president in Himachal.

Speculations are rife that he might be fielded as a Congress candidate from Shimla (Rural) constituency that is being represented by Virbhadra at present. Sources say that Virbhadra is well aware of the fact that his son is not popular with the masses. In any case, he comes nowhere close to his father in terms of a leader with a pan-Himachal mass base.

But Virbhadra appears to be adamant to see a 'sonrise' in the Himachal Congress. It remains to be seen whether the 'pressure tactics' adopted by him yield desired results this time too.

First published: 29 August 2017, 15:34 IST