BACK TO THE WALL
Corruption charges, anti-incumbency, leadership challenges... Virbhadra Singh has a tough election year
He looks apprehensive. Receiving visitors at the Himachal Pradesh civil secretariat in Shimla on May 27, 82-year-old Virbhadra Singh admitted he was anxious. “Any matter in court is a cause for worry,” the chief minister told india today, alluding to the investigations against him by the income tax department, Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) and Enforcement Directorate (ED) (see box: Hot on his Heels).
Two days later, a special court in Delhi granted Singh and his wife Pratibha bail in the disproportionate assets case committed to trial by the CBI, but he knows it is far from being over. Grilled by ED investigators for nine straight hours on April 20 on related charges of moneylaundering, Singh is aware his arrest and incarceration remain a real and present threat. All this ahead of legislative assembly elections—expected in October—complicates things for Singh and the ruling Congress in a state that has never repeated a government since 1977.
And confident of a comeback in Himachal Pradesh in the wake of resounding wins in neighbouring Uttarakhand and Uttar Pradesh, the BJP is pulling out all the stops. On April 27, the state BJP hosted Narendra Modi with unprecedented celebration in Shimla. The route of the prime minister’s cavalcade was strewn with rose petals as supporters braved unexpected showers to hear him address a rally on Shimla’s Ridge. Officially there to launch UDAN, the Union government’s regional air connectivity scheme, Modi exhorted his cheering audience to “oust the corrupt and the dishonest” from power.
A week later, BJP president Amit Shah launched a blazing attack on the Congress government in the state, accusing Singh and his administration of failing to use the ‘liberal’ funds allocated by Delhi. The BJP chief pointed to the Rs 28,450 crore in deficit grants by the 14th Finance Commission under the BJP’s watch, compared to less than half that—Rs 11,131 crore—from the 13th Finance Commission. Shah emphasised “the rampant corruption in Himachal Pradesh” where “the chief minister is treating corruption charges like medals”. The party plans to stage an equally big show when Union home minister Rajnath Singh arrives on June 4 to address voters in Hamirpur, former CM Prem Kumar Dhumal’s home ground. Besides the BJP’s onslaught, which includes the induction of several thousand RSS activists, chief minister Singh also faces serious challenges from within his own ranks. “There is a generational fight within the Congress in Himachal Pradesh,” says Sukhwinder Singh Sukku, 52, who was made Pradesh Congress Committee chief much against Singh’s wishes after the assembly poll victory in 2012. “It’s a tough contest,” Sukku concedes, but he believes the Congress has a fighting chance to take the
state for a historic second successive term.
“This is a very different Himachal Pradesh from the one Virbhadra Singh has ruled for six terms as CM,” Sukku says. He talks of younger, more educated voters who are looking for change—but not necessarily outside the Congress. Sukku claims to have built an extensive organisational structure, from the district committees to four-man polling booth teams. “We now have three workers (soochi adhyaksh) constantly in touch with every 60 voters,” he says.
Singh’s detractors are pushing for a ‘collective leadership plan’ in which he isn’t the party’s only face through the poll campaign. This, they insist, is imperative in light of the corruption cases against the CM, who could be forced to step down in the event of his arrest. Sukku, who has reportedly obtained the signatures of 23 of the party’s 36 MLAs, has said he will demand Singh’s resignation the moment the CBI special court frames charges in the assets case. Notably though, all 23 MLAs were among 35 who also signed a letter supporting Singh’s leadership on May 26.
On the street, however, Singh enjoys far greater support than his party detractors and BJP rivals will concede. Surinder Pal, a shop-owner in his fifties in Shimla’s Lakkar Bazaar, says, “He (Virbhadra) is a very good man, the best CM Himachal has ever had.” Surinder refuses to believe the ‘Raja of Bushahr’ would ever indulge in corruption for a few crores. Stories of Singh’s generosity abound—of how, even when out of power, not a single supporter who met him at his Holly Lodge residence in Shimla, went home empty handed. “There was always a man at the door with money when it was time for you to leave,” says Ramdev Chauhan, a street vendor. Both men, though, predict the BJP will form the next government because “no government is re-elected”.
The BJP, which has been on a roll since the Modi wave brought it all four Lok Sabha seats in the state in 2014, including Singh’s rural Shimla bastion, is aware any major move against the CM could spark a sympathy wave in his favour. Dhumal and Union health minister J.P. Nadda, who seems to be emerging as the BJP’s new face in the state, will remember how corruption and criminal conspiracy charges brought against Singh in June 2012 contributed to his victory in the assembly elections six months later.
Himachal Pradesh BJP president Satpal Singh Satti, 52, carefully restricts himself to the Congress government’s failure to implement projects granted to the state by the Centre. “They have completely failed to make any progress on the IIM, the Smart City project or the AIIMS announced by the Modi government,” he says, adding that detailed project reports and land acquisition for crucial infrastructure projects have been delayed inordinately.
But what about the corruption charges against the CM? “Virbhadra’s reputation of honesty has been exposed,” Satti says, though he seems reluctant to pursue that line of conversation. Like the rest of the BJP leadership in the state, he too is banking on the “Modi magic to do its work”.
Amid the dissensions within the state Congress, there’s a measure of disquiet within the BJP too. Much of the state unit has begun rallying around Nadda, who is reportedly keen to return to state politics as CM. Many believe his connect with the BJP national leadership could help him topple two-time CM Dhumal. But there’s also speculation that like in the case of Manohar Lal Khattar in Haryana, Trivendra Singh Rawat in Uttarakhand and Yogi Adityanath in UP, the party could spring a dark horse in Himachal Pradesh too. Ajay Jamwal, BJP organising secretary for the Northeast, is being seen as the best bet—he belongs to Jogindernagar in the state, is a RSS pracharak and has a clean image.