Himachal Pradesh election result: Virbhadra Singh falls, son rises as Congress loses

With the Himachal Pradesh election result, Virbhadra Singh’s political career ends on a losing note even as he ensured a firm platform for his son, Vikramaditya, to carry forward his legacy.

india Updated: Dec 18, 2017 16:58 IST
Chetan Chauhan
Chetan Chauhan
Hindustan Times, New Delhi
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Virbhadra Singh crushed rivals within the state Congress unit to ensure a smooth ride for his son, Vikramaditya (right). (HT file photo)

The ruling Congress’s defeat in the Himachal Pradesh assembly election would be remembered more for bringing to an end the era of the party’s popular leader Virbhadra Singh than for the BJP’s emphatic victory.

The six-time chief minister and 83-year-old Singh had declared that this election would be his last but not before launching his son, 28-year-old Vikramaditya, who made his assembly debut from Shimla Rural, a seat his father vacated for him. Singh, too, won from Arki.

“I accept BJP’s victory and take take full responsibility of our performance here. I hope Vikramaditya (Singh) keeps winning in future, like he won today,” Singh said on Monday.

The generational shift in the state unit almost mimics changes at the national level. Rahul Gandhi took over as the Congress president on December 16 from his mother, Sonia Gandhi, who served a record 19 years as the party chief.

Singh enjoyed a mass following built on the back of his efforts to empower the poor through education and health. But he would have wanted a better end to his career. He bows out of politics with a poll defeat and a string of corruption charges, which will continue to be heard by courts in Delhi.

In almost 60 years of public life, first as a junior minister in Rajiv Gandhi’s cabinet and then chief minister of Himachal, Singh had a mass appeal unmatched by any other leader in the hill state.

BJP’s stalwarts, Shanta Kumar and Prem Kumar Dhumal, didn’t even come close.

The Congress veteran’s style of working, both as a party leader and as an administrator, was markedly different from others.

Within the Congress, he ruthlessly crushed rivals and did not allow any other leader to emerge to ensure a smooth passage for Vikramaditya.

Vijay Singh Mankotia, who like Singh came from an erstwhile royal family and presented a formidable challenge to him, was forced out of the party.

Senior Congress leader Anand Sharma was not allowed to gain a foothold in his home state, forcing him to shift to Delhi.

Himachal Congress chief Sukhvinder Singh remained a lame-duck chief, as most office-bearers of the state unit followed directions from Holy Lodge, Singh’s residence.

In youth politics, he was happy to see Congress’ student body, the National Students Union of India (NSUI), play second fiddle to the Left-wing Students Federation of India (SFI) to keep the RSS-backed Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarathi Parishad (ABVP) at bay. He knew the SFI could provide him the street-fighters while the NSUI would give future leaders to the Congress.

Himachal is the only northern state in the country, where the SFI has a strong campus presence.

Singh demanded loyalty, more to him than the Congress, a shrewd move to prevent the central leadership from upstaging him.

Singh had twice threatened to break the Congress legislature party if he was not elected as the chief minister, party sources say.

When the Congress won the 2012 election, he got his group of legislators housed under guard at a Shimla hotel to prevent them from meeting central leaders who reportedly wanted archrival Vidya Stokes as the chief minister. The party brass had to give in as Singh had the numbers on his side.

As chief minister, Singh micro-managed everything. It is well known in official circles that not even a peon could be transferred without the chief minister’s consent.

A bureaucrat recalled Singh scrapping a transfer ordered by a senior cabinet colleague because it was sent out without his approval.

Singh knew well that transfers and postings could be leveraged to political advantage, as every second family has a member employed with the state government.

BJP’s Shanta Kumar was decimated after he introduced no work, no pay policy as chief minister in Himachal, where the state government is the biggest employer.

Erstwhile king of Rampur Bushahr in Shimla, Singh followed socialism as the guiding principal when he ventured into politics. He took schools and health centres to almost every village in Himachal.

Horticulture, especially apple cultivation, got a big push under him, turning the relatively poor upper regions of the state into one of the richest rural areas of the country.

For the plains or lower Himachal, he pushed jobs and infrastructure.

But things started to change in early 1990s, when his wife, Pratibha Singh, started taking interest in state politics. Vikramaditya’s rise coincided with Singh facing corruption charges for the first time.

If Singh puts off his retirement – several politicians have done that – by accepting the position of leader of the opposition, it would be seen as an attempt to push for his son’s elevation in the party. It would further dent his graft-tainted legacy.

But, if he hands over the post to a new leader, the move would be seen as an act of a statesman.

First Published: Dec 18, 2017 13:24 IST