Congress Eyes Hill Revival
Once a regional party of Himachal Pradesh
Poll season's setting in the hill state of Himachal Pradesh with the assembly election approaching in a couple of months. Will the Congress come back riding on the present anger against the incumbent Bharatiya Janata Party government, or will the squabbling party leaders once again demonstrate their penchant for hara kiri?
In the face of its downslide across the country, a factor that works to the advantage of the grand old party here is its distinct character in the state. Many observers point out that the Congress, while being a pan India party, has functioned more like a regional party in this state, with less interference from New Delhi.
Strong leadership coming from the hills in its first chief minister Dr Yashwant Singh Parmar, and later in Virbhadra Singh who was a six time chief minister, ensured that the state leadership functioned independently with minimal interference from the party high command. These men had a different personality and modes of functioning but understood the regional aspirations of the people very well.
"Parmar remains a legend in the hearts of the people. He was a towering personality and the central leadership led by Jawaharlal Nehru and later Indira Gandhi acknowledged it. He was the one who first got a special category status for the state. An original thinker, he worked on a three dimensional theory for developing the state that encapsulated horticulture development, hydropower development and tourism development in the state," recalled senior Congress leader Kul Rakesh Pant.
Parmar was the one who promoted people's participation in development. Locals in Solan recall how the 40 km Solan–Rajgarh road was built through shramdan (voluntary labour) in which Parmar participated himself. The panchayats pitched in to complete the project. This was a model introduced in the early 1950s.
"He was a leader of high stature and original thinking. It was his efforts that saw the creation of a Vishal Himachal, when he got leaders like Thakur Ranjit Singh and Pandit Onkar Chand from lower areas to favour the merger with the hill state when the reorganization of states was underway, which eventually saw the creation of Haryana and Himachal Pradesh carving out areas from Punjab," added Pant.
Parmar's outlook of competing with both Punjab and Haryana in development is well known. Later it was the arrogance and ego trip of Sanjay Gandhi that led to him resigning as chief minister and returning home to Baghthan as a common man.
Indeed Parmar's persona and conduct would put the majority of present day politicians to shame. Who can think of a chief minister passing away with a reported sum of just Rs 563 and 30 paise in his bank account?
"I still have the vivid memory of seeing him sitting in one of the front seats of a state transport bus and going home. My father had told me, a schoolgoing boy, that he was the former chief minister," recalls Sanjay Awasthi, the Congress legislator from Arki, which was represented by Virbhadra Singh till the time of his death.
Thereafter came Thakur Ram Lal who became the Congress chief minister twice for brief intervals, before Virbhadra Singh emerged as the second leader after Parmar with a pan Himachal presence. Some people are of the opinion that while Parmar was too tall a leader who had evolved over a long struggle, Virbhadra came up on stage as an outcome of internal strife in the party.
In any case, Virbhadra Singh is remembered for standing up to the party high command on numerous occasions with the latter having to adhere to his demands. He never allowed the Delhi leaders to meddle in the affairs of the state. "Those sitting in Delhi who think India is Delhi and Delhi is India have no right to meddle in affairs of the state that are best known to the local leadership," he had told this reporter in an interview almost two decades ago.
It was in 1993 that he scuttled the move of former Prime Minister Narasimha Rao and others to make Sukh Ram chief minister of the state, threatening to move out with his flock.
The central leadership had to yield to him once again when the party high command failed to replace him with Vidya Stokes despite the latter being a favourite of Sonia Gandhi.
Sources say that he had another run-in with Sonia Gandhi when Himachal Pradesh became the first state to introduce an anti-conversion bill in 2006.
Once again in 2012 he forced the Congress high command to declare him the chief ministerial face, besides getting control of party affairs in the state through a working president of his choice as word went round of him joining hands with the Nationalist Congress Party. This episode followed his resignation from the Union cabinet a month before in the wake of corruption charges against him. Trinamool Congress too had reportedly sent feelers to him at that time.
Observers point out that the BJP did not attack him beyond a point fearing a public backlash. They point to the 'ugly' campaign by the party during the 2012 polls when there was no major anti incumbency against the BJP government led by Prem Kumar Dhumal.
But there was a flip side to Singh. Many observers as well as Congress workers point out towards his operating the party as his fiefdom, promoting a crony culture and never allowing a second-rung party leadership to grow, a void being badly felt now.
He had defended himself by saying, "I don't believe in taking a hammer and chisel to design effective leaders. They have to come up with their own hard work."
"He was known for making his men contest as party rebels. He was the one who facilitated the establishment of organizations like the Virbhadra Singh Vichar Manch to act as pressure groups on his behalf," pointed a party leader.
With both Parmar and Virbhadra gone, the party is in need of a strong leader with a presence across Himachal. A weak high command adds to its challenges as internal bickering continues. Party insiders feel that the unity forged a couple of months back in the name of collective leadership needs to percolate down to the village level to convert the public sentiment into an electoral victory.
The BJP hit out at the Congress on Wednesday after getting two opposition MLAs, Pawan Kajal and Lakhwinder Rana, into its fold. But internal bickering is not confined to the Congress alone, and more switchovers are expected from both sides in the coming few days.
For the Congress, Himachal offers a window of hope. It remains to be seen whether it makes good on the opportunity available, or squanders its advantage as it did in Uttarakhand.