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CM Virbhadra Singh struggles to retain his hold on poll-bound Himachal Pradesh

The Himachal Pradesh chief minister has been facing cases of alleged corruption and disproportionate assets, the opposition BJP aims to pin him down on these factors.

india Updated: Aug 17, 2017 09:20 IST
Gaurav Bisht
Gaurav Bisht
Hindustan Times, Shimla
Himachal Pradesh,Virbhadra Singh,Kotkhai gang rape case
Himachal Pradesh chief minister Virbhadra Singh has the distinction of being the second-longest serving chief minister in the country. Assembly elections in the state will be held later this year.(HT File Photo)

Veteran of many political upheavals, his ability to fight back has been his biggest strength in a career spanning more than 50 years. But in poll year, chief minister Virbhadra Singh is grappling with his fading charisma and a host of issues.

Personally, he has been facing cases of alleged corruption and disproportionate assets, using which the opposition BJP aims to pin him down. A battle within the Congress in Himachal Pradesh threatens to drown out his stature. And people are seemingly disenchanted with their Raja Sahib — Singh belongs to the erstwhile Rampur Bushar royal family — over governance and law and order. To fight back now and emerge successful will be a Herculean task.

Singh had announced that the upcoming assembly elections later this year would be his last but it will also be the toughest for the octogenarian leader, who has the distinction of being the second-longest serving chief minister in the country after Sikkim’s Pawan Chamling.

In the last five years, time has seemingly changed for Singh as he faces detractors within his party. State Congress chief Sukhvinder Singh Sukhu, who replaced him as party chief five years ago against his wishes, has proven his organisational ability and gradually phased out the chief minister’s loyalists.

However, Congress, which has been in power for most part of the state’s history, still lacks a strong second rung leadership to replace Singh. An attempt was made by a group of legislators, when they tried to move up health minister Kaul Singh Thakur, but it failed.

Singh has in his current term promoted his youngest son Vikramaditya, who now heads the Himachal Pradesh Youth Congress. The move may be seen as his attempt to regain control over the party but it has set off fresh bickering between the factions led by him and Sukhu.

Virbhadra’s ups and downs
Virbhadra was elected to Lok Sabha first in 1962, then in 1967, 1971 and 1980
In 1983, he stepped down as industries minister, replaced Ram Lal Thakur as CM, his first stint that lasted till 1990
Although he was elected from Jubbal Kotkhai in 1985, he lost the seat to Thakur in 1989 but won from Rohru
But the post of opposition leader went to Vidya Stokes from 1990
In 1993, he returned as CM, has held post for every alternate five-year term
Elected to LS in 2009, he was made steel minister, shifted to MSME in 2011
Singh had to step down from the ministry in 2012 after being framed in an alleged corruption case, which was publicised through a leaked audio CD allegedly containing his voice
Replaced by Kaul Singh Thakur as state Congress chief. Later, he threatened to quit and join Sharad Pawar’s NCP
Singh was acquitted in the CD case in December 2012, a day before he was sworn in as CM for a record sixth time
Faces cases of disproportionate assets.

The gang rape and murder of a 16-year-old school girl in Kotkhai’s Hilaila village couldn’t have come at a more inopportune time for the beleaguered chief minister. The ‘botched up’ investigation by police put him in a quandary as opposition BJP and CPI(M) lost no time in steering public anger against the government and police.

Naked pictures, alleged to be of the victim, circulated on social media and the chief minister uploading pictures of four suspects, who later turned out to be clean when police arrested six others, further fuelled public outrage.

The custodial death of a Nepalese in Kotkhai police station aggravated the disenchantment as people took to the streets in Shimla and Kotkhai, the apple heartland that has been a traditional Congress bastion.

Singh came under severe criticism, including from his own party men, over the issue. Half a dozen legislators opened a front against the chief minister, putting his government in the dock. The brewing discontent raised concerns for the Congress high command as it anticipates rebellions like those in Arunachal Pradesh and Uttarakhand.

Speculation is rife in political circles that many dissidents are in touch with the BJP and are looking to switch over ahead of the polls as there is a growing feeling among them that chances of Congress returning back to power is feeble.

In order to quell infighting, Congress deputed AICC general secretary Sushil Kumar Shinde, a former Union minister and two-time Maharashtra chief minister. Shinde tried to strike a balance between the two warring factions and announced that elections would be contested under “a collective leadership”, in a bid to pre-empt trouble in the state unit, which could be exploited by the BJP to topple the government.

Congress, for the time being, has worked out a formula to forge unity among the warring factions, but it remains to be seen how it tackles the infighting that will intensify at the time of ticket distribution.

For BJP, which eyes more than 50 seats in the 68 member house, the graft cases against Singh and his poor governance will provide ammunition for the poll battle.

“This is most corrupt government. Mafias of different sorts — liquor, forest, mining are ruling the roost in the state,” state BJP chief Satpal Singh Satti claimed

First Published: Aug 17, 2017 07:51 IST