Himachal Congress tries to put house in order (Himachal Pradesh Newsletter)

Shimla, April 28: As Himachal Pradesh goes to the polls for its 68 assembly seats later this year, the faction-ridden opposition Congress has begun an exercise to put its house in order with the hope of ousting the Prem Kumar Dhumal-led Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) government.

Senior party functionaries, including union ministers Anand Sharma and Virbhadra Singh, are meeting here in a daylong brainstorming session May 1 to initially sink their differences and then prepare a roadmap for the elections.

“The meeting has been planned on the advice of our party chief (Sonia Gandhi)…it’s just to jointly work out a strategy to bring the party back to power,” Congress Legislative Party leader Vidya Stokes told IANS.

Gandhi called the senior party leaders in Delhi April 24 and told them in clear terms to work in unison and adhere to the party norms.

“Himachal is an important state and we want results there,” Gandhi told the leaders.

She asked Birender Singh, in charge of the party’s state affairs, to sit along with the leaders and discuss the challenges ahead of polls and chalk out an election strategy.

Besides Virbhadra Singh and Sharma, state party president Kaul Singh and his state unit functionaries, former state party chief Viplove Thakur and Stokes have been invited to the meeting.

Five-time chief minister Virbhadra Singh, 76, popularly known as Raja Saab, is fighting a ‘survival battle’ this time, while state party chief Kaul Singh’s prestige is at stake to bring the Congress back to power under his leadership.

Political observers feel Virbhadra Singh has to re-establish his credentials as a charismatic leader in the elections as the party faced a humiliating defeat in the 2007 assembly elections at his helm. After losing power, he was almost marginalised in state politics.

“Now Raja Saab wants that the elections should again be conducted under his leadership, or at least he should have a say in the allocation of tickets (to candidates),” a senior party functionary said.

To make his presence felt, he has already become active in state politics and held a series of rallies across the state.

At the rallies, where he got an overwhelming response, he has been critical of his own party leaders. He has been saying the state leaders have failed to take the Dhumal government head on. He even accused them of playing a “friendly match” with the BJP.

“Even Gandhi has taken a serious note of Virbhadra Singh’s independent rallies without taking the state party chief into confidence. She asked all the leaders to stop holding parallel rallies,” a source said.

Interestingly, Stokes and Virbhadra Singh, who were believed to be archrivals, have of late joined hands and been seen at political rallies together.

A segment of young legislators are not happy with the performance of Kaul Singh. They are demanding change of leadership in the state.

“The party can go for restructuring the state leadership but at the moment the issue of bringing the seniors together is top priority,” said a Congress leader.

Stokes said besides assembly elections the forthcoming meeting would also take a call on the party’s strategy for the Shimla Municipal Corporation elections due May 27.

The party is yet to make public candidates for the post of mayor and deputy mayor. Elections to both the posts will be held directly for the first time.

The Congress has been maintaining its control over the civic body for the past three decades, but the state ruling BJP is hoping to win at least the post of mayor even if it does not get a majority in a 25-member house.

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

IANS