Ferment in Congress, BJP hopes to topple Virbhadra (News Analysis)

Shimla, March 30 (IANS) Himachal Pradesh Chief Minister Virbhadra Singh is battling increasing disquiet within the Congress party even as the BJP seems confident of clawing back to power in the hill state.

After three years in power, a section of Congress leaders, including young legislators, say they feel suffocated vis-a-vis Virbhadra Singh, who is at the helm for a sixth time and is known for his autocratic style.

The Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) is confident of regaining the ground it lost in the 2012 assembly election. It also feels that the Virbhadra government is on the brink of collapse following fresh revelations as the Enforcement Directorate probes the chief minister for money laundering.

Two-time BJP chief minister Prem Kumar Dhumal has hinted that many Congress legislators were unhappy with Virbhadra Singh and were in touch with him, and an Uttarakhand-like situation cannot be ruled out.

Undeterred, a shrewd Virbhadra Singh, who will meet Congress party in-charge Ambika Soni in New Delhi on April 2, said: “The BJP will never succeed in my political murder.”

Congress insiders say it is high time to end the discontentment among a section of legislators.

“Virbhadra Singh needs to bring in new faces and make changes in his government. It will be too late if he fails to do it now,” a senior party leader who didn’t wish to be identified told IANS.

He said three under-performing ministers – Vidya Stokes, 89, Sujan Singh Pathania, 73, and Thakur Bharmouri, 69 – could be replaced in the 12-member cabinet with new talent.

Speaker B.B.L. Butail is 75-years old.

Second-time legislators Rajesh Dharmani (Ghumarwin) and Rakesh Kalia (Gagret) were among the youth leaders whose names were doing the rounds for ministerial berths when the first cabinet was constituted. But they were ignored.

Another young sulking legislator is Rohit Thakur, the grandson of former chief minister late Thakur Ram Lal and a prominent apple grower. So is former education minister and firebrand legislator Asha Kumari.

The fissures within the Congress surfaced twice at vice president Rahul Gandhi’s election rallies in the state in the 2014 Lok Sabha polls when his “young brigade” complained that they were deliberately sidelined.

At a rally in Bilaspur town, Gandhi took with him Dharmani to the dais where Virbhadrda Singh and other senior leaders were seated. Dharmani had not been invited to the stage though he was the local legislator.

Similarly, a group of young turks told Gandhi that they were not getting due respect from party leaders in the state.

Dharmani resigned as a chief parliamentary secretary just ahead of the Lok Sabha polls.

A political crisis was sparked in 2013 by the purported resignation of Transport Minister G.S. Bali who was miffed with Virbhadra Singh.

Bali, who sent his resignation to the party leadership in New Delhi, later backtracked.

Last year, Bali vowed to launch a statewide march to raise the issue of unemployed youth.

Political observers say the Congress central leadership seems to have adopted a wait-and-watch policy on the fresh revelations by the Enforcement Directorate against the chief minister.

“Probably they are awaiting the outcome of the investigation. If something adverse happens, the leadership may force Virbhadra Singh to step down and pitch for (senior minister) Kaul Singh,” said an observer.

Kaul Singh was in the race for chief ministership in 2012.

Accusing the Centre of misusing government agencies against him, Virbhadra Singh, 82, has said his government was stable despite political manoeuvring by the BJP.

In the 68-member assembly, the Congress has a wafer-thin majority with 36 members. The BJP has 26 legislators.

There are five independent legislators and one from the Himachal Lok Shakti Party.

(Vishal Gulati can be contacted at vishal.g@ians.in)

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