Veteran trouble dogs Congress in Himachal

Veteran trouble dogs Congress in Himachal

 Former Chief Minister Virbhadra Singh, PTI file photo

With Lok Sabha elections just nine months away, Congress is finding itself grappling with the defiance of ailing veteran and former Chief Minister Virbhadra Singh in Himachal Pradesh.

After losing the Assembly elections last year, the Congress is trying not to ride roughshod when dealing with Singh, who is widely respected across the state, and keep him in good humour as it goes about recasting the party organisation in the hill state.

Recently, Congress President Rahul Gandhi appointed former Rajya Sabha member Rajani Patil as the AICC in-charge of the state in place of AICC General Secretary Sushilkumar Shinde.

A senior Congress leader said factionalism continued to be a problem in the Himachal unit with Virbhadra, a four-term chief minister, remaining daggers drawn with arch rival and PCC president Sukhvinder Singh Sukhu.

The leader admitted that given the 84-year-old former chief minister's stature and popularity across the state, Congress leadership may have to give in to his demand of replacing Sukhu, who has been in the post for more than five years.

“Raja sahab (as Virbhadra is referred to in the state) cannot be ignored and we will have to consult him while re-structuring the party unit,” the leader said.

Congress managed to win 21 out of the 68 seats in the state assembly in the elections held in November last year. BJP rode to power winning 44 seats and garnering the support of 48.8% voters. The Congress vote-share was still a respectable 41.7%.

When Patil visited the state earlier this month, a meeting called by her at the state Congress office was boycotted by Virbhadra and leaders close to him. Keen not to antagonise the veteran, the AICC in-charge called on the former chief minister at his residence to know his views on the political situation in the state.

Earlier, veteran Congress leaders S M Krishna and N D Tiwari had joined the BJP and the grand old party would be keen to avoid a similar situation in the state.

It may be recalled that Virbhadra had virtually forced the Congress leadership to declare him as the chief minister twice in 2003 and in 2012. Ahead of the elections last year, Virbhadra had again prevailed upon the leadership to declare him as the chief ministerial candidate.

Himachal sends four members to the Lok Sabha. BJP currently holds all the four seats, but Congress leaders believe that if they play their cards well, the party could wrest at least two seats in the 2019 elections.