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Himachal elections: Congress hopes rest on Virbhadra after lacklustre campaign

At an age when most politicians would call it a day, the 83-year-old Congress strongman is giving the upcoming assembly elections his best. However, the party’s disorganised campaign could cost him dearly.

india Updated: Nov 09, 2017 10:39 IST
Navneet Sharma
Navneet Sharma
Hindustan Times, Shimla
Virbhadra Singh,Himachal Pradesh,Assembly elections
Virbhadra Singh has taken on Prime Minister Narendra Modi, accusing him of “political vendetta”.(Vipin Kumar/HT Photo)

Virbhadra Singh is a six-time chief minister with an electoral track record that few of his contemporaries can match.

At an age when most politicians would call it a day, the 83-year-old Congress strongman from Himachal Pradesh is giving the upcoming assembly elections his best. And he is doing this despite the stakes being stacked high against him.

Singh and his family are facing cases pertaining to corruption and disproportionate assets, which are being investigated by the Central Bureau of Investigation, the Enforcement Directorate and the Income Tax department.

His son, Vikramaditya, is also making his electoral debut from the Shimla rural constituency. Singh has vacated the seat for him.

The Congress, jolted by a string of losses in several states with the exception of Punjab, is equally desperate to do well here. And the party’s hopes rest on the popularity of ‘Raja Sahib’, as the scion of the Rampur-Bushahr royal is called by his supporters, to tame the belligerent BJP.

Retaining power in the state is an enormous challenge, given all the factors – from Singh’s reportedly fading charisma, allegations of corruption and poor governance, and the revolving door syndrome – piled up against Singh.

As it stands, no party has succeeded in retaining power in the state for two consecutive terms over the last three decades. However, Singh – the oldest candidate in the fray – exuded confidence through the election campaign. “We have done substantial work in the past five years, opened thousands of new schools and colleges, set up health institutes, improved road connectivity, and created job opportunities,” he said at a rally, declaring that development-oriented governance was his strong suit.

He took on Prime Minister Narendra Modi, accusing him of “political vendetta”, and played the victim card. Other Congress leaders – including party vice-president Rahul Gandhi and Punjab chief minister Capt Amarinder Singh – focussing on GST, demonetisation and inflation (in that order) to target the BJP.

However, the party’s disorganised campaign could cost Singh dearly. The party’s star campaigners either joined election campaigns only in the closing stages or completely gave them a miss. Gandhi addressed three rallies on November 6, a day before the campaigning came to an end. State leaders – including Himachal Congress chief Sukhvinder Singh Sukhu – also confined themselves to their seats, leaving the burden of countering the BJP blitzkrieg solely on Singh’s elderly shoulders.

The BJP, on the other hand, flew in its big guns. Besides Modi himself, campaign rallies were addressed by party president Amit Shah; central ministers Rajnath Singh and Smriti Irani; UP chief minister Yogi Adityanath; and Uttarakhand chief minister Trivendra Rawat.

Besides hoping to make the most of the BJP’s internal wrangling in Kangra, the Congress is counting on its strong traditional pockets of support – particularly in upper Himachal – to retain power in the state.

However, the party is concerned about the impact of Singh’s decision to shift out of the traditional ‘apple belt’ – with 12 constituencies – to the Arki assembly segment in Solan district. The disaffection caused by the gang-rape and murder of a schoolgirl in Kotkhai has also become a cause for concern.

The voters, meanwhile, are holding their cards close to their chest.

First Published: Nov 08, 2017 16:12 IST