BACK TO THE WALL

Cor­rup­tion charges, anti-in­cum­bency, lead­er­ship chal­lenges... Virb­hadra Singh has a tough elec­tion year

India Today - - NA­TION - By Asit Jolly

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.

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