He is a few days shy of turning 80 but when it comes to campaigning hard Himachal Pradesh chief minister Virbhadra Singh can still give young leaders in his party a run for their money. Having addressed around 120 big and small election meetings so far, Virbhadra campaigns till late and criss-crosses different assembly segments comprising four parliamentary constituencies – Shimla, Mandi, Hamirpur and Kangra.
HT follows the chief minister as he campaigns in interior Nankhari, a sub-tehsil in his home constituency Rampur Bushahr. The erstwhile king of Bushahr arrives at Nankhari at 5pm, an hour late, due to the bad condition of the road as people wait for him on the roadside.
The locals greet their former king warmly; amid shouting of slogans, the chief minister takes the stage along with local leaders. Virbhadra who was elected to the Lok Sabha for the first time in 1962, tells the public about how the Congress leaders worked hard after Independence to strengthen the country’s economy and its position internationally.
“When our country was freed from the British rule, its population was 25 crore. We had to export foodgrains, but today the population has crossed 125 crore. We not only produce grains for our own consumption but also export it,” Virbhadra says.
From the money being spent to bolster BJP prime ministerial candidate Narender Modi’s campaign to other important aspects, Virbhadra t ouches every issue. He tells the gathering that the country’s economy did not deteriorate when superpowers like America were affected by recession.
“It was due to the Congress-led UPA policy that the country did not feel the impact of recession,” he says. Knowing that people have to walk long distances to reach back their villages, Virbhadra cuts down his speech which is laced with humour.
“Don’t believe what Dhumal says, he is frustrated. Unki awaaz ek tootey hue dil ki awaaz hai (His voice is that of a broken heart),” he says.
Then Virbhadra heads for the rest house to meet local leaders and party workers. While having soup, workers put forward their demand for a mini-secretariat and a college, which was announced by the BJP.
“Let the elections be over, you will have them, we have already demarcated the land,” he says.
Soon a member of his personal staff reminds him that he is getting late and it will take around three hours to reach his private residence -- Padam Palace at Rampur.
Virbhadra gets on to his Toyota Fortuner, along with local MLA Nand Lal. Lal briefly explains to Virbhadra about the changing economy of Nankhari that is known for its apples.
As vehicles pass through bad roads, Virbhadra reminisces about his political career that spans over 50 years. He recalls how late prime minister Indira Gandhi reposed faith in him and handed him over the reins of the state in 1983.
“I had gone to attend dinner at the house of governor designate Hokishe Sema and when I returned, the attendants apprised me of the frantic phone calls from the Prime Minister’s residence. Next day, Indiraji asked me to take over as chief minister,” he says.
After enquiring about time from his driver Durga Dass, the chief minister talks about the opposition he faced from a few Congress leaders when he came to Shimla from Delhi.
It’s 8.15 pm as his driver draws his attention to the people waiting for him on roadside with garlands. Lal tells the group that the Raja sahib has travelled more than 200 km. The villagers at Chadhidragi garland Virbhadra seated on the front seat of his vehicle.
Along with wishes villagers of fer him dried fr uit. “Now you know from where do I get strength to undertake such a hectic campaign. The real energy comes from people. During campaign I don’t have any worries,” he tells HT.
Soon he shifts the topic to the deteriorating election campaign. “In 50 years of my political career I have not witnessed this kind of campaigning. It’s all about mudslinging. Vajpayee was any day better than Modi,” he says.
By 9.15 pm, the vehicles pick up pace and as they reach the main national highway, the cavalcade stops at Nogli as there is a group of about 50 people waiting to greet Raja sahib.
Though tired after 12 hours of campaigning, Virbhadra gets down. “How are you all?” he enquires from them. People offer him cardamom and cloves. “Raja sahib, clove is good for the throat,” says Gopal Negi, a shopkeeper.
Twenty minutes later, when the cavalcade reaches his palace at Rampur town, there are more than a hundred people waiting for him. Locals apprise him of the ongoing election campaign.
Sitting in the drawing room of his palace, Virbhadra enquires about wife Pratibha Singh. “Where has Rani sahiba reached?” he asks one of the workers. Virbhadra, who is joined by principal secretary VC Pharkha, tells the workers that he has some official work.
Next morning, his palace buzzes with activity even as Pratibha leaves early for her election campaign. “I have one school-time habit of going to bed late but I still get up early in the morning,” says Virbhadra, alumnus of Bishop Cotton School.