The murky political goings-on in Himachal Pradesh

Following the recent rebellion of six MLAs, the Congress finds itself on shaky ground in the only State it now runs in north India.

Published : Mar 21, 2024 11:00 IST - 5 MINS READ

Leader of opposition in the Himachal Pradesh Assembly, Jai Ram Thakur (right), congratulates BJP leader Harsh Mahajan (left) on winning the Rajya Sabha election. Shimla, February 28.

Leader of opposition in the Himachal Pradesh Assembly, Jai Ram Thakur (right), congratulates BJP leader Harsh Mahajan (left) on winning the Rajya Sabha election. Shimla, February 28. | Photo Credit: ANI

An atmosphere of intrigue and uncertainty surrounds the election to the four Lok Sabha seats in Himachal Pradesh. The Congress, which came to power with a comfortable majority in 2022, seems to have lost some of its credibility following a recent rebellion in its ranks. Since late February 2024, the party has been weathering one crisis after the other.

At present, three of the Lok Sabha seats, Hamirpur, Kangra, and Shimla, lie with the BJP while the Congress has the seat of Mandi. In the 2019 parliamentary election, the BJP repeated its 2014 scorecard, winning all four seats with hefty margins, riding high on the Modi wave. The party secured 69.7 per cent of the votes, which was much more than what it got in 2014. But in 2021, the MP from Mandi, Ram Swaroop Sharma, died by suicide. In the byelection that followed, Pratibha Singh, wife of the former Chief Minister, the late Virbhadra Singh, wrested Mandi from the BJP.

Also Read | ‘We got nothing from the Centre’: Himachal Pradesh Chief Minister Sukhvinder Singh Sukhu

With a highly educated electorate, Himachal Pradesh has always alternated between the Congress and the BJP. The voter turnout in the last three elections—the Assembly elections of 2017 and 2022, and the 2019 Lok Sabha election—was around 80 per cent. Electorally, Himachal Pradesh may not be a major player, but its significance for both the Congress and the BJP cannot be underestimated.

Congress’ chances

First, it is the only State in north India where the Congress is in power. Second, the BJP’s national president, J.P. Nadda, is from a Himachali family while Union Minister of Information and Broadcasting Anurag Thakur is from the State. Thakur is the sitting MP from Hamirpur. He has now been renominated, along with Suresh Kumar Kashyap, BJP MP from the reserved seat of Shimla. The Congress has not declared candidates for any of the four seats.

The crisis in the Congress began with the election for the Rajya Sabha seat on February 27. The Congress candidate, the senior Supreme Court advocate Abhishek Manu Singhvi, was expected to win easily. But during the election, six Congress MLAs voted for the BJP candidate (as Rajya Sabha elections take place through open ballot, the identity of the legislators who cross-voted was there for all to see). Singhvi got the same number of votes as the BJP’s Harsh Mahajan. The result was ultimately decided by the drawing of lots. Mahajan was declared the winner.

For the Congress, the outcome was a shocker. The BJP promptly demanded the Chief Minister’s resignation. A no-trust motion seemed inevitable. The Congress went into damage control mode, quickly sending Karnataka Deputy Chief Minister D.K. Shivakumar and former Haryana Chief Minister Bhupinder Singh Hooda to Shimla to sort out the crisis with the help of Rajeev Shukla, who is in charge of the All India Congress Committee. A six-member coordination committee, including Chief Minister Sukhvinder Singh Sukhu and Pradesh Congress Committee president Pratibha Singh, was set up to iron out the differences.

The Speaker, Kuldeep Singh Pathania, disqualified the six legislators, not for cross-voting (the anti-defection law does not apply to elections to the Rajya Sabha) but for abstaining from voting on the Budget, in defiance of a party whip.

But some had seen the rebellion coming. The choice of Singhvi, who does not belong to Himachal Pradesh, was probably wrong-headed. Sources said that Singhvi’s candidature might not entirely have been Sukhu’s idea, but it did benefit him indirectly since it meant that local claimants were kept at bay. Sukhu is said to enjoy the confidence of the Gandhi siblings and probably went with the choice of the party bosses.

But it is likely that the Congress had little idea of the rebellion brewing within. After all, among the six rebel MLAs, at least two had been elected to the Assembly on multiple occasions. Besides, all six are from Hamirpur, Sukhu’s home district.

Himachal Pradesh Minister Vikramaditya Singh addresses a press conference in Shimla on March 6, 2024.

Himachal Pradesh Minister Vikramaditya Singh addresses a press conference in Shimla on March 6, 2024. | Photo Credit: PTI

The Congress got another jolt soon after the debacle when State Congress president Pratibha Singh and her son, Vikramaditya Singh, who is the Public Works Department (PWD) Minister, challenged Sukhu’s leadership. Both mother and son, political legatees of the ex-Chief Minister, voiced their grievances publicly, almost justifying the actions of the six legislators who were, by then, ensconced in a hotel in Panchkula, Haryana.

Voicing grievances

Vikramaditya Singh resigned from his post on February 28 alleging humiliation by the Sukhu-led government, only to take back the resignation the very next day, as Sukhu prevailed upon him. But then, on March 1, he went to meet the disqualified legislators in Panchkula. Meanwhile, Pratibha Singh publicly critiqued the functioning of her own government and praised the organisational skills of the BJP. She told the media that the grievances of Ministers, including those of the rebels, were not being addressed properly, thus laying the responsibility for the defection directly at Sukhu’s doorstep.

Also Read | Rajya Sabha elections in Uttar Pradesh and Himachal Pradesh exposes fractures within Opposition ranks

In the present 68-member Assembly, the respective strength of the parties is thus: the Congress has 40 seats, the BJP has 25, and independents have 3. After the disqualification of the six MLAs, the strength of the Assembly is reduced to 62. The Congress now has 34 seats in a 62-member Assembly, a simple majority. If the disqualification is upheld, byelections for the six seats will be held within six months.

With the Lok Sabha election just weeks away, the Congress can ill afford to cede ground to the BJP. The recent developments are a setback to the party, which should have been selecting candidates at this time. Even if the government manages to complete a full five-year term, it will be an uneasy tenure for Sukhvinder Singh Sukhu.

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