Challenge and provocation (bordering on insult) multiply several times the strength and spirit of Himachal Pradesh Chief Minister Virbhadra Singh. This fact proven many times in the past has not so far been understood by the think-tanks of both the Congress party and the BJP.
When PV Narasimha Rao was the Prime Minister he tried to make his favourite Pandit Sukh Ram the Chief Minister of Himachal Pradesh. The news was in the air for a few days, helping Virbhadra Singh to retaliate and block his rival’s way. Finally, the Centre had to abandon the idea and Singh became the Chief Minister again in 1993.
On two other occasions, Congress president Sonia Gandhi too had other ideas. Vidya Stokes, Kaul Singh, G S Bali and Anand Sharma were openly talked about as possible candidates for the top post. Each time, Virbhadra Singh, acknowledged as the tallest leader in the state with a mass base and an emotional connect with the people, stole the march over the others.
Before the previous polls to the Assembly in 2012, the BJP (then in power) repeated the mistake. An old corruption case was raked up and all the drama that followed the trial gave a fresh lease of political life to Singh. The discussion in public places – the coffee houses, market places, public transport, etc. – revolved around an emerging opinion on how the Raja Sahib could never be “personally corrupt” and how the BJP was just trying to humiliate him out of fear that it might lose power.
Indeed there was absolutely no need to single out the Raja for attack, as most political observers felt. The BJP government was performing very well under the Chief Ministership of Prem Kumar Dhumal – easily the only leader in the party generally acceptable in all districts of the state. Many other leaders of the party in the state also performed creditably – but Dhumal alone commanded people’s confidence at that level. There was no significant enough anti-incumbency factor.
Besides, Virbhadra Singh with so many rivals and enemies within his own party (both in the state and the Centre) was down in the dumps. The situation could not have been gloomier for him. He himself expressed the hopelessness of the situation to The Statesman in a meeting at his Delhi residence.
Slowly, but surely, the public sympathy tilted towards “the Raja Sahib in danger”. He too sensed the people’s mood and with fresh hope he gathered his energies and began to hit back in a big way. The way he campaigned during the election (“moving like a wild fire”) addressing over a dozen or more rallies in a day, travelling from one end of the state to the other, was to be seen to be believed. The Statesman team, also sensing the public mood, was on his trail. His party high command too at last realised that all his other contenders in the party were nowhere near him in mass appeal and backed him fully with resources. The Congress won and BJP lost.
With the Assembly elections scheduled in the last part of this year, the BJP leadership was about to repeat the mistake this time – it was ready to corner and even get Singh arrested in a disproportionate assets case — but some state BJP leaders reportedly persuaded wisely their party leaders against such an action. If Indian voters by and large are emotional, the Himachalis are even more so. Modi wave or no Modi wave, Singh would have benefited vastly. But, of course, the overconfident BJP leaders at the Centre may still do so as election time draws close.
And BJP’s strategy of singling out the Chief Minister for attack continues. It is clear from the recent statements of the Central leaders like Nitin Gadkari, the party in-charge in the state Mangal Panday, Prime Minister Modi and other leaders on their visit to the state. It’s as though they are acknowledging that the other Congress leaders do not matter in the state. Virbhadra Singh with his political acumen basks precisely in such a focus on him.