After thwarting foes within, six-time Himachal Chief Minister Virbhadra Singh, 83, is set to don battle gear once again with Congress Vice President Rahul Gandhi declaring him the “commander” who will lead the party to victory.
In contrast, the opposition Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), which contends it is confident of clawing back to power in the hill state, is still a divided house.
“There is too much confusion over who will lead the party in the forthcoming assembly elections,” a senior state BJP leader, who did not wish to be identified, told IANS.
He said the party is divided in two camps — one led by two-time Chief Minister Prem Kumar Dhumal and the other by Union Health Minister J.P. Nadda.
Nadda, who has been devoting much time and energy in the state launching central projects and programmes, played a key role in the 2014 election, helping the party win all four parliamentary seats even though a Congress government was in office.
“The party cadre and the leaders are totally confused over who the party leader is. Who will take the party to the victory,” wondered a senior BJP leader, a cabinet minister in the previous Dhumal-led government.
He said at least the Congress leadership had sorted out issues related to the one-upmanship between the Chief Minister and state Congress chief Sukhwinder Singh Sukhu ahead of the polls.
Ending months of speculation and turmoil within the party, Rahul Gandhi last Saturday announced at a public meeting in Mandi town that Virbhadra Singh will “become the Chief Minister for the seventh time”.
Clearly indicating the party stands behind Singh, who is facing cases related to disproportionate assets, he said: “Virbhadra Singh ji has done tremendous development as six-time Chief Minister. He will be the Chief Minister for the seventh time. This will have full backing of the party.”
“Rahul Gandhi’s public announcement clearly indicated that Virbhadra Singh will lead the party in the elections and will have a say in the allocation of tickets too,” said a Congress leader.
He added that Singh, who has been in active politics for over 50 years and is a regular target of the BJP, is considered a threat only by top state leaders but not by the cadre.
“The party’s workers at the grassroots are emotionally connected to Virbhadra Singh and with Rahul Gandhi clearing the air about the party leadership, their morale has been boosted,” added the leader, once a cabinet minister in the Virbhadra government.
Informed sources said Virbhadra Singh had categorically told Congress President Sonia Gandhi in late August that he would not take the party into the assembly elections under state chief Sukhu’s leadership.
At that time, the Chief Minister, along with his cabinet colleagues, camped in New Delhi for three days to seek a “free hand” in the selection of candidates and the conduct of the party’s campaign ahead of assembly polls.
Rahul Gandhi was out of India at that time.
Despite the Congress sorting out its leadership issues, the BJP remains confident of regaining the ground it lost in the 2012 assembly election.
It also feels Virbhadra Singh is on the brink of political “collapse” following charges framed against him and his family by a CBI court in connection with a money-laundering case.
Dhumal has often hinted that Congress legislators were unhappy with Virbhadra Singh and were in touch with him.
Without naming Virbhadra Singh, Prime Minister Narendra Modi during a recent visit to Bilaspur to lay the foundation of a Rs 1,350 crore AIIMS hospital and launch the party’s election campaign, said: “This is a zamanati sarkar (government on bail).”
“When some people of the Congress came to meet me, I told them the Chief Minister and his entire family are out on bail… Then the Congress people replied that our entire party is on bail, our (Congress) President is facing corruption charges,” Modi said.
Undeterred by the court cases and carping critics, Virbhadra Singh has been aggressively touring the state for the past six months, laying foundation stones and inaugurating infrastructure projects.
Only time will tell whether the veteran politician will succeed in leading his troops to victory in what must surely be his last electoral joust.