Virbhadra battles age, corruption charges to take up Congress’ mantle in Himachal
The veteran leader said the upcoming polls were proving to be a tough contest as all his bank accounts have been frozen.HimachalPradeshElection2017 Updated: Nov 03, 2017 23:23 IST
“I want to die with my boots on.” Chief minister Virbhadra Singh’s hazel eyes crinkle as he says this. The 83-year-old is the campaigner-in-chief of the Himachal Congress, fighting with its back to the wall in the assembly elections against a resurgent Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP).
But Raja sahib, as the six-time CM is called in the hill state, is fighting valiantly.
“I have lived a good life. There are times I tell myself that enough is enough. But then something happens and I am again thrust into the battlefield,” he says. It’s 4pm and Virbhadra is taking his first break of the day, with two more meetings to go, but he is in good spirits.
Earlier, addressing a rally at Nurpur for sitting legislator Ajay Mahajan, he admits it’s a tough battle.
All my bank accounts have been frozen. I don’t have money to contribute to the elections,” he says. This is evident from the absence of choppers from his campaign. The Raja sahib hit the road after the polls were announced last month.
CONG’S BEST BET
Attired in a grey Nehru collar coat with his trademark green Himachali topi (cap), he looks feeble as he gently holds on to Mahajan on the stage, but his wit is intact. Thanking the gathering of Congress legislators from Punjab, led by Fateh Bajwa, he says, “Wherever he goes, candidate ki fateh hoti hai (the candidate wins).”
The gathering, which has been waiting for three hours, pipes down once he takes the stage after a flurry of speeches in which Youth Congress chief Raja Warring slams the case of disproportionate assets against the CM as vendetta, pointing out how the police raided Virbhadra’s residence on the day his daughter was getting married. The poll, he declared, was a battle for the state’s honour.
MP Ranjeet Ranjan, co-in charge of Himachal Congress affairs, said the party believed Virbhadra was enough to take on Prime Minister Narendra Modi and his “selected not elected” men, taking a jibe at Amit Shah, Smriti Irani and Arun Jaitley campaigning in the state.
Virbhadra said never had he seen such a display of wealth and power in Himachal elections. It was an observation that resonated with the locals who agreed they had never seen so many placards or banners. “It’s carpet bombing. It’s as if they want to destroy the very existence of the state,” Virbhadra said.
Modi, he frowned, was behaving in a manner that didn’t behove his stature.
Just outside the venue, Modi peered down from posters as jeeps carrying his cutouts sped by, prompting a confused woman to ask, “Kya Modi ji bhi Virbhadra ke liye aaye hain (Has Modi also come for Virbhadra?).”
‘MY WEALTH IS ANCESTRAL’
Venue after venue, Virbhadra brought up the charges of corruption against him. “I’m not an industrialist or a trader, all my wealth is ancestral.” But the authorities, he said, had decided that his assets were disproportionate to his source of income, as the gathering laughed. There was a round of clapping as he declared, “I have never asked anyone for money, not even for the party.”
Virbhadra, who was presented with a sword, said he wasn’t afraid of the BJP’s “intimidatory” tactics. “Mere mein dum hai (I still have the guts).”
His message to party workers is: “Don’t be afraid. I have toured villages, people are still with us. These people who come by air haven’t been able to touch the masses like us.”
Later, while grabbing a quick bite, the Raja called his ability to connect with people across classes his biggest strength in his political innings that included four terms in the Lok Sabha as well. “I’ve also been very lucky,” he says with a charm shining amid a bunch of worried looking party men. Ask him if he ever thought he should have done things differently, and he says, “Of course, I have so many regrets when I look back.”
And no, even though speaker after speaker waxed eloquent about his six stints as CM, it’s still miles to go for him. “One life is not enough to achieve everything,” he adds with a smile.