AN internecine open and bitter war between former Chief Minister Virbhadra Singh and his detractors that control the state Congress continues unabated. Singh’s rebellious mood has further sharpened the divide in the faction-ridden party. With no more than three months left for the crucial Assembly elections, both the factions are spending all their time and energy in defaming and destroying each other.
While Singh slammed his detractors as “BJP moles”, the latter doubts the former Chief Minister’s loyalty to the party and dismisses him as a “perpetual rebel”. There is hardly any visible effort to mobilise the cadres and motivate them for the battle ahead. The party is holding district level meetings to identify probable candidates amidst violent clashes between rival groups. Both factions accuse each other of hurting party’s prospects in the coming polls. While the state has a tradition of alternatively voting BJP and Congress to power (As was the case in Punjab of which HP was once a part), Congress cadres and supporters are disillusioned and demoralised. Many in the party are openly admitting that the Congress has already lost the opportunity to come to power in the state.
No one denies that Singh, who recently resigned from the Union Government after he was charge-sheeted in a corruption case against him, is the only leader in the Himachal Congress who can give a tough fight to the BJP. Yet there is persistent resistance from Singh’s opponents for his projection as the party’s chief ministerial candidate. The five-time Chief Minister is fully aware that 10, Janpath is hostile to him and is planning to project Union Commerce Minister Anand Sharma as the future leader. It is worth recalling that Nehru-Gandhi dynasty has not forgiven Singh for his refusal to accept dynasty’s demand to own up the party’s defeat in state in parliamentary polls because of local factors in order to absolve Rajiv Gandhi’s responsibility in the party’s crushing defeat in 1999.
Interestingly, he was the only Congress Chief Minister to take such a stand against the advice of the high command. Singh had rightly taken the stand that the party didn’t lose in the state because of his government’s performance but because of “national issues”. The dynasty is making Singh pay for his principled stand.
Former Chief Minister’s exclusion from the Screening Committee that will short-list party candidates so enraged him that he publicly offered to quit from the Campaign Committee that he heads and the Manifesto Committee headed by Anand Sharma. He told senior party leaders in Delhi that it was yet another attempt to sideline him in the state. He demanded that his supporters must get their due in the party nominations in coming polls and insisted that his presence in the Screening Committee was essential to safeguard their interests. Realising the party would be hit hard if Singh were to revolt; the high command went into damage control mode and asked several senior leaders to meet Singh to placate him. They gave him no concrete assurance barring telling him that his concerns would be taken care of. He recently told his supporters that his demand for induction into the Screening Committee had been rejected and that neither he nor his wife Pratibha Singh had been promised party’s tickets for the coming polls. Ahmed Patel and Sheila Dixit gave him a patient hearing and assured him that party won’t ignore him. Yet, Sonia Gandhi is believed to have bluntly told him that he couldn’t be projected as chief ministerial candidate as this was against Congress tradition. Former Chief Minister is aware that the tradition is to leave the decision to Sonia Gandhi and she would never nominate him after exploiting his clout with certain sections of voters. The talk about Congress tradition is a blatant lie. She declared Dr. Manmohan Singh as party’s prime ministerial candidate in 2009 parliamentary polls and Rahul Gandhi recently declared Capt. Amrinder Singh as the party’s nominee for the office of Chief Minister of Punjab.
In an obvious bid to cause pressure to be brought on the high command, Singh summoned a meeting of his supporters at his residence on August 1 to decide his future course of action. There were speculations about his quitting the party and launching a regional party or joining NCP. A large number of MLAs, former legislators and district level leaders turned up for the meeting but the move proved counter-productive. Several of his heavy weight supporters pledged loyalty to him but frankly told him they wouldn’t leave the party if he were to launch a regional outfit. Singh’s latest is that there was no formal meeting, only some party men came to meet him at his residence after his return to his home town. Singh’s opponents in the state party seem to have convinced the party high command that he is “blackmailing” the party by exploiting his perceived hold over a section of the party. They pleaded with the high command to call his bluff by refusing to concede his “unreasonable” demands, including appointment of a working president of the state unit. As of now, the position is that the high command has rejected most of his demands but wants to placate him to prevent him from sabotaging the poll campaign. Frustrated with high command’s tactics and unwillingness of his supporters to follow him out of the party, the Congress stalwart threatened to retire from politics rather than campaign in conditions suicidal for the party. Singh’s options are limited. Chances are he would neither retire from politics nor quit the party but would ensure the victory of Congressmen loyal to him and try to sabotage the prospects of his detractors. He has the capacity to cause heavy damage party’s prospects. Yet another plank of his strategy is that his loyalist denied party nomination will contest as Independents or as NCP candidates with which Singh has an informal understanding.
In sharp contrast to rumblings, uncertainties and revolts in the Congress, national leadership of the BJP has succeeded in ironing out differences in the party’s state unit. Most dissidents have been won over and the party has plunged into the campaign long before the announcement of polls by the Election Commission. The political scenario in the state has undergone a dramatic change in favour of the ruling party during the last one month. With all senior state leaders on board, the party is now confident of winning hands down. Performance of the BJP Government during the past five years and a large number of development schemes launched and executed by the Government is likely to emerge as the core issue. On the organisational front, the party has not only set up teams of 5 to 30 activists in each of the 7130 polling stations but also further divided the work among individual activists. Each active member has been allocated five families or 20 voters for contacting and motivating them to walk to the polling booth on the day of reckoning. Dr. Rajiv Bindal, General Secretary of Himachal BJP, says more than 80 per cent polling booths had already been covered and simultaneously workers meetings have been held in a majority of assembly constituencies to streamline the poll machine. Veteran BJP leader Shanta Kumar and Chief Minister Prem Kumar Dhumal are confident of winning a clear majority in the 68-member assembly the election to which are slated for November 2012.