The Congress party in Himachal Pradesh stands more divided before public after five-day visit of All India Congress Committee (AICC) general secretary and party incharge for HP, Sushil Kumar Shinde, who came here to promote ‘collective leadership’ formula in the run up to polls.

On his second visit to HP from 16-20 August, Shinde moved in some parts of the state, including Kangra, Mandi and Kullu, with the state Congress president, Sukhvinder Singh Sukhu and chief minister, Virbhadra Singh with an aim to energise the party cadres and get a feedback from the field ahead of assembly polls.

Even during his meetings, the ruling party, which is plagued by infighting at top level for continued differences between Virbhadra Singh and Sukhvinder Singh Sukhu, could not portray unity and there were bitter exchanges between leaders, directly and indirectly.

Congress sources said while seasoned leader Shinde tried to under-play the party squabbles at all the meetings. The CM’s remarks against ‘back-stabbers’ in Congress and his open utterances against former Union minister, Sukh Ram for having floated another party against Congress blew off Shinde’s claims on a ‘united look.’

Some Congress leaders in Singh’s rival camp, including a former MLA from Kangra district even accused the CM of helping the candidates fighting against Congress in polls.

Some others, including party chief, Sukhu had to come in defence of Sukh Ram for his contribution in the telecom field and ‘typical circumstances’ that led to the formation of the new party by him.

Sources said, towards the end of Shinde’s visit, however, the CM softened his tone.

“Shinde’s visit was successful. We had good meetings in different districts. The CM also attended them and there was no bitterness. Shinde has made it crystal clear that Congress will move with a collective leadership,” said state Congress chief, Sukhvinder Singh Sukhu.

Party sources said Shinde’s stand, that the party will not declare chief ministerial face, has not gone down well with Virbhadra camp in Congress, that dominates the scene, with majority MLAs siding with him.

Sources said the CM’s loyalists in CLP want the polls to be fought under Virbhadra’s leadership, he being the only leader with mass appeal. Contrary to this, the CM’s rivals, including state Congress chief, Sukhvinder Singh Sukhu and some other senior Congress leaders have been lobbying for change in leadership before the polls.

However, when they failed in this, they changed the strategy and sought ‘collective leadership’, on which they were able to move the high command.