Two days after it reached the peak in the battle of supremacy in the hill state of Himachal Pradesh, choosing the chief minister has become an uphill task for the Congress party, even as state party chief Pratibha Singh is out of the Chief Minister’s race.
To nip the ‘lotus in the bud’ appears to be the party’s prime considerations while making the decision.
And its decision makers know that ignoring sitting Member of Parliament Pratibha Singh, under whose leadership the party sought votes, could be the thorn that can prick where it hurts the most, if her family stature in state politics is ignored.
Sources in the party say Pratibha Singh is out of the Chief Minister’s race as most of the newly elected legislators have reposed faith in the leadership of former state party chief and four-time legislator Sukhwinder Sukhu.
Sukhu, 58, who reportedly has the support of over 25 legislators, is the favourite for the Chief Minister’s post. Mukesh Agnihotri, 60, also fourth time legislator, is a frontrunner for the top post as well.
Pratibha Singh, who was assured by the party high command that her legislator son will be accommodated suitably in place of her in the incoming government, is the widow of Congress veteran and former chief minister Virbhadra Singh, who remained at the helm of the state for a record six times and fought and led numerous political battles single-handedly, even when he turned octogenarian.
The veteran leader passed away early in July last year in Shimla at the age of 87, leaving behind a rich political legacy of pursuing politics on his own terms, rather than banking on his proximity to the party high command.
Earlier, Pratibha Singh, who has not contested any Assembly poll, was openly opposing the candidature of Sukhu for the chief minister’s post.
After winning the elections, Pratibha Singh, 66, claimed the support of majority of lawmakers who are loyal to her husband. She even told the party high command that it would not ignore the legacy of Virbhadra Singh.
Even her second-time legislator son categorically said he’s ready to vacate his seat for his mother, if she’s been given a big responsibility in the state politics.
Pratibha Singh’s son Vikramaditya Singh retained Shimla (Rural), a seat earlier represented by his father.
Claiming the family legacy and contribution for returning to the helm, Pratibha Singh said she had sought votes on development carried out by her husband during his six terms as the Chief Minister.
Party insiders admitted privately to IANS that Pratibha Singh, who hails from the Keonthal royal family, also played a crucial role in reuniting the “divided” Congress well ahead of the polls to speak with one voice over key issues to put the government in the dock over corruption, deteriorating law and order situation and rising debt.
Not many might know Pratibha Singh’s family ties with Congress rebel two-time Punjab chief minister Capt Amarinder Singh, who is now a BJP leader, that may cost the party dear if her stake for the helm is ignored by the party at this point in time, a senior Congress leader told IANS.
Her daughter, Aprajita Singh, is married to Angad Singh, the grandson of the erstwhile Patiala royalty’s Amarinder Singh.
“The family alliance may be strengthened at later sometime, maybe well ahead of the parliamentary polls in 2024, by bringing Virbhadra Singh’s family and her husband’s loyal MLAs into the BJP by offering them various position in the government under Operation Lotus,” admitted the leader.
On the other hand, the stature of Capt Amarinder Singh, popularly known as ‘Maharaja’ as he is the scion of the erstwhile Patiala princely state, in the BJP has been growing stronger by the day.
“Of course, if the Congress didn’t suitably compensate the legacy of Virbhadra Singh, the Maharaja’s stature in his party will definitely help the Raja Saab’s family sinking fortunes in the Congress,” the leader remarked.
Capt Amarinder Singh has a long association with the hill state. He owns two ancestral orchards — one at Kandyali near Narkanda, some 60 km from state capital Shimla, and another at Dochi near Chail in Solan district.
At both places he is often seen holidaying along with his friend Aroosa Alam, a Pakistani journalist and socialite.
The Congress on December 8 got an absolute majority by winning 40 seats — six over than the half-way mark of 34 in the 68-member House, while the outgoing BJP was reduced to 25.
The other dark horse behind the success of Operation Lotus could be Harsh Mahajan, who for over a decade played a crucial role in strengthening the Congress organisation at the grassroots under Virbhadra Singh. In the lead-up to the elections, he joined the BJP.
He was the working president of the state Congress unit when he defected.
Mahajan is known for his close ties with party’s national President J.P. Nadda, who too belongs to the hill state.
When he was a close aide of Virbhadra Singh, Mahajan played a crucial role in the grooming of her son Vikramaditya Singh and shared cordial relations with Pratibha Singh.
(Vishal Gulati can be contacted at email@example.com)