At an age when most men’s thoughts turn to retirement, Himachal Pradesh Congress chief Virbhadra Singh has been in overdrive, working the crowds in his state over these past few weeks. Covering as many as 60 of the state’s 68 assembly constituencies, the 80-year-old Congress veteran has delivered the state to the Congress with a comfortable 36 seats with the incumbent BJP getting 26. If there are any lessons to be learnt from this for the Congress, it is the need to nurture strong regional leaders. Mr Singh has been chief minister of the state five times and it is said that no one knows the state and its people quite as well as him. So, it was a gamble that paid off for the Congress. His opponents had hoped that the allegations of corruption against him would eat into the Congress’s vote share. But what the BJP did not seem to factor in is that many in its own state leadership are not considered pure as the driven snow. It was around the same time that charges were being levelled against Mr Singh that BJP president Nitin Gadkari came under a cloud for alleged corruption. So, in effect, the BJP’s attempt to tarnish Mr Singh’s image did not work.
The Congress’s decision to hand over charge of the campaign to Mr Singh served to galvanise the party. It was this which has enabled this victory in the state. The Congress failed in Gujarat precisely because it did not have a strong state leader to take on Narendra Modi. The victory in Himachal should perhaps serve as a wake-up call for the Congress. It has to allow strong local leaders to flourish and manage things rather than have to follow dictates from the high command. It is always a plus point if the local leader is seen to have the support of the central leadership, but he or she should be allowed a certain degree of autonomy.
Mr Singh was given a free hand and he used his experience and reach to wrest the state from the BJP. The fact that Mr Singh is a former raja also probably worked in his favour in a state which though highly developed still retains many feudal characteristics. For the Congress, which is no doubt smarting from its defeat in Gujarat, this win in Himachal will certainly lift its spirits a bit.