Himachal CM Sukhu needs his best political game to stay on top

Sukhu enjoys the Congress high command's support

PTI02_29_2024_000154B Course correction: (From left) Congress observers Bhupesh Baghel, Bhupinder Singh Hooda and D.K. Shivakumar with Chief Minister Sukhvinder Singh Sukhu and state Congress president Pratibha Singh | PTI

When Rahul Gandhi made a brief speech at Indora in Himachal Pradesh during his Bharat Jodo Yatra in January 2023, he made a special mention about an act of kindness by Chief Minister Sukhvinder Singh Sukhu he had witnessed that day.

Pratibha and Vikramaditya Singh, who have been complaining about the chief minister allegedly not cooperating with them, continue to give clear indications that the truce is fragile.

Sukhu had walked with Rahul through Indora after the yatra had entered Himachal Pradesh from neighbouring Punjab. The route of the yatra had been changed to include the state following the party’s victory in the assembly polls. Rahul spoke about how Sukhu had helped a participant who had suffered a fall during the yatra. He said it warmed his heart to note that the state had a chief minister who cared for the people.

Sukhu was then a newly minted chief minister, having led the party to victory in the assembly elections in November 2022. The 58-year-old leader, who rose through the ranks in the Congress, had finally found his moment in the sun.

The son of a state roadways bus driver, Sukhu was seen as the subaltern who took on the might of Virbhadra Singh, the royal who had dominated the state’s politics and the Congress. Virbhadra, the longest-serving chief minister of the hill state, was a powerful satrap who did not bow to the Congress high command. It was in such a scenario that the plucky Sukhu challenged Virbhadra, reportedly with the backing of the party leadership in Delhi.

The assembly elections in 2022 were the first state polls to be held after Virbhadra’s demise. Sukhu took over as the 15th chief minister of the state on December 11, 2022. Fourteen months down the road, he is fighting to save his government and to safeguard his own position.

In what was a huge jolt to Sukhu and the Congress, six MLAs cross-voted in the Rajya Sabha elections, resulting in the humiliating defeat of the Congress nominee, the party’s legal troubleshooter Abhishek Manu Singhvi. What made it all the more shocking was that the party had 40 MLAs as against the BJP’s 25 on the day of the elections.

The six MLAs, who were subsequently disqualified by the party, claimed that many more legislators were unhappy with Sukhu’s style of functioning. The differences between Sukhu and state Congress president Pratibha Singh, the widow of Virbhadra, and her son, Vikramaditya, who is a minister in the Sukhu cabinet, also played out. Senior leaders sent to the state have worked out a compromise, and a coordination panel has been set up which will have Sukhu and Pratibha as its members among others. However, the truce appears to be tenuous.

Sukhu’s detractors talk about the chief minister failing to take everyone along and being inaccessible even to his own MLAs. It is said that the unrest had been brewing for months, and there were clear indications about the discontent with Sukhu, who enjoyed the complete backing of the Gandhi siblings.

“The people of the state know that I have worked hard to ensure that the Congress wins in the state. I have been constantly humiliated and the issues of my constituency were being neglected,” said Sujanpur MLA Rajinder Rana, one of the six rebel MLAs. “All this was raised before the party high command. Our MLAs were not heard by our own government.”

According to party sources, Sukhu was confident of the Rajya Sabha elections going the Congress’s way. They say the plan that was rolled out by his detractors was not strategised at the local level, but by senior BJP leaders in Delhi.

The rival camp has pressed for a new chief minister. However, the central leadership has, at least for now, chosen to back Sukhu. It is felt that changing the chief minister so close to the Lok Sabha elections would send across a negative message.

According to a leader close to the chief minister, the two MLAs who led the rebellion, Rana and Dharamsala MLA Sudhir Sharma, were upset over not being made ministers. The other rebel MLAs, as per the leader, were involved in mining in the Beas river basin and were upset with the Sukhu government about the ban on mining in the wake of the debilitating floods in the state last year. Around 15 MLAs, belonging to both the Congress and the BJP, are involved in mining.

“The two MLAs who were upset over not being made ministers, the others who were angry over the mining ban, the angst of Pratibha and Vikramaditya, the disappointment of [senior Congress leader] Anand Sharma over not getting nominated for the Rajya Sabha seat from the state and the BJP trying to take advantage of the situation, everything just came together to form a deadly concoction,” said the leader.

Sukhu is in damage control mode. Following up on the compromise worked out by the central leadership’s emissaries, he has made an effort to be more accommodating. The decision to appoint MLA Bhawani Singh Pathania as deputy chairman of the state planning board and legislator Nand Lal as chairperson of the seventh State Finance Commission are part of the compromise. More such appointments are expected in the coming days.

Pratibha and Vikramaditya, who have been complaining about the chief minister allegedly not cooperating with them, however, continue to give clear indications that the truce is fragile. Vikramaditya met the six rebel MLAs in Panchkula, Haryana, on his way to Delhi, indicating his family’s sympathies were with them.

Responding to media queries on whether she had got in touch with the BJP, Pratibha, who was a claimant to the chief minister’s post, said, “God knows what situation will occur in the time to come.” And when asked to comment on the central observers’ assertion that Sukhu will complete five years in office, she said, “Does it matter what observers say? It is about what the people of the state want.”