Himachal Pradesh: Sukhvinder Sukkhu Rises Even As The Legacy Of Virbhadra Singh Looms Large

Rohit Pathania

Dec 12, 2022, 12:25 PM | Updated 05:56 PM IST

Sukhvinder Singh Sukkhu  and the late Virbhadra Singh.
Sukhvinder Singh Sukkhu and the late Virbhadra Singh.
  • The countdown to losing power in Himachal Pradesh has begun for Congress.
  • What happens now is a test for the Congress party on many levels, with perhaps national implications.
  • After two and a half days of deliberation and discussion, the Congress party’s Himachal Pradesh unit has been able to finalise the name of Sukhvinder Singh Sukkhu of Nadaun in Hamirpur Lok Sabha seat as the Chief Minister.

    Given the student politics origins of Sukkhu as a prominent leader for Congress’ National Students Union of India (NSUI), it is not surprising that former NSUI colleagues like Bhupesh Baghel, the observer for the state alongside Bhupinder Singh Hooda, were more than eager to usher him in.

    Unlike the late Virbhadra Singh, whose entry into politics was a matter of chance due to Jawaharlal Nehru’s influence, one could claim that Sukkhu has managed to have a good relationship with the Gandhi family.

    The selection of Sukkhu marks two distinct breaks for the Congress. The legacy of Virbhadra Singh has been kept aside for now.

    Despite significant parleys by Pratibha Singh, the show of strength by Sukkhu during the legislature party discussions clearly showed the odds stacked against Singh and her son Vikramaditya.

    However, she has not been kept aside entirely, as her ‘preference’ Kuldeep Agnihotri has been made the Deputy Chief Minister.

    As a result of these parleys, Himachal Pradesh has gotten its first deputy chief minister ever.

    Observers have noted that Agnihotri essentially derives his strength from proximity to Pratibha Singh, and so it is certain that Sukkhu will certainly not have a smooth ride any time soon.

    Another break is in the fact that the Congress has a chief minister from lower Himachal.

    This also makes sense, given how the Congress has come to power despite the odds stacked against it primarily due to its electoral performance in the lower Himachal region and not upper Himachal.

    One would have expected Rajendra Rana to get a bigger role, but clearly he stands aligned with Sukkhu in the current scheme of affairs.

    This mirrors the departure made by Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) in 2017 when it chose Jairam Thakur of Mandi as the Chief Minister, unlike its previous choices who hailed from lower Himachal.

    Challenges Galore In Himachal Pradesh

    The challenges for the party are immense, thanks to the state’s fiscal challenges. Already, the party seems to be evading the question of the old pension scheme (OPS) promise, as senior leader Anand Sharma’s statements indicate.

    Given the state’s delicate finances, the application of OPS will definitely ensure ruin.

    Also, questions around job creation, especially government jobs, will be difficult to solve. Assuaging people’s demands will not be easy for the Congress for sure.

    Also, the issue of construction ban around Shimla will be very difficult to solve, given the various pulls around it, leading to the urban sprawl that has been a major issue in the region.

    Dharamshala’s smart city project was scrapped by the BJP government, leading to disaffection — will the Congress government pick it up again? This is another question that will loom large on Sukkhu’s mind.

    However, the fiscal position will perhaps be secondary in nature, given a more pressing challenge — that of the looming legacy of Virbhadra Singh.

    Pratibha Singh and her son literally staked claim to the chief minister’s chair. While the internal party numbers do not stand with them for now, the tug of war has just started.

    Given the kind of challenges one saw during Thakur Ram Lal’s era, one would not be surprised to see Singh, coincidentally also the state unit president, undercutting Sukkhu’s government continually.

    The continued tussle may even see the party tear itself apart to the point of a break.

    While there is a show of unity on the surface, it would not be surprising that Singh or her son break away with their loyalists and cause the government to collapse within two years, precipitating fresh elections within the state.

    While the Congress showed rare sagacity in avoiding the Madhya Pradesh mistake, it remains to be seen if Sukkhu can stave off these challenges and deliver a full-term government.

    The inability of the Congress to ensure regional balance will also be a factor that hurts the party at some level, much as the BJP apparently experienced.

    The cabinet’s composition will decide two things — whether the government can be controlled by Sukkhu and whether regional aspirations get balanced or not.

    Already, there are voices of discontent about both the chief minister and deputy chief minister hailing from Hamirpur Lok Sabha region.

    In this election, the BJP did gain from Jairam Thakur’s choice, especially with Congress losing big time in Mandi and Chamba.

    Given how the Congress would especially want to regain its strongholds of upper Himachal, this tight ropewalk would have to be ensured at all costs. Any perception of alienation of Singh, herself the Mandi Lok Sabha MP, and her son who represents Shimla rural in the Vidhan Sabha and hails from Rampur Bushahr, can prove costly for the party.

    National Level Signal — Congress Party Remains A Gandhi Fiefdom

    The signal on national politics about the Congress remains clear. Sukkhu’s selection is being attributed to his proximity to the Gandhis, unlike Singh and her son.

    Clearly, any pretension otherwise of changes in the party are a sham that only serve the purpose of self-delusion within, not outside.

    Madhya Pradesh and the disaster of Kamal Nath would weigh large on the party, and every effort will be made to make the government last for five years.

    While the government may not last even two years, it may very well be the case that the Chief Minister gets replaced midway.

    However, the election campaign process revealed something more fundamental. While some factions were trying to give credit to Priyanka Vadra for the victory, that talk disappeared quickly.

    Rahul Gandhi’s absence and barely two rallies by Vadra were proof of the family’s disinterest in the state elections and prioritisation of resources for a Bharat Jodo Yatra that is clearly not going anywhere close to any elections.

    This attempt at looking like some saint raises more questions on the Gandhi family — it seems as if the family is keen on just securing the party in southern India and pockets of central India where it still has some standing.

    This lack of interest in making a comeback in the north is perhaps an acknowledgment that the party is simply not interested. Rahul Gandhi himself suggested this with his atrocious statements made about northern India during election rallies in Kerala and Tamil Nadu in 2021.

    Whether Himachal Pradesh ends up seeing fresh elections or a mid-term change of face will also indicate the interference and/or impact of the Gandhis in the state and the affairs across northern India at large.

    The challenge for the new government in Himachal Pradesh would clearly be on seeking stability first. Whether any progress can happen would be a question faraway from Sukkhu’s mind for now. Clearly, the countdown to losing power has begun in the state.

    What happens now is a test for the Congress party on many levels, with perhaps national implications.

    Rohit Pathania works in the space of renewable energy and environment. Other interests include politics and the economy.

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