The battle for the Mandi Lok Sabha seat in Himachal Pradesh is not between the candidates. It is between former Union minister, nonagenarian Sukh Ram’s long political standing and first time Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) Chief Minister Jai Ram Thakur’s prestige.
Sukh Ram, who has been in Himachal politics for nearly six decades and is back in Congress, is struggling for his ‘political legacy’ and Jai Ram is fighting to establish his popularity in home district Mandi.
Thakur is leading the poll campaign in Himachal for the first time. Sukh Ram has not only represented Mandi Lok Sabha seat thrice earlier, but has been using his clout for ‘dynasty politics’ smartly so far.
Eleven candidates are in poll battlefield in Mandi in 2019 Lok Sabha polls, but the main contest is between the BJP candidate, sitting MP, Ram Swaroop Sharma (60) and Sukh Ram’s grandson Ashray Sharma (32) from Congress. The CPM and Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) have also fielded their candidates in Mandi. Mandi Parliamentary constituency is the largest and toughest in Himachal, encompassing all three tribal Assembly segments of Bharmour, Lahaul Spiti and Kinnaur. Besides, it includes nine segments of Mandi district, four of Kullu district and one from Shimla district.
The BJP, which had swept the poll in Mandi district, by getting 9 out of 10 seats in 2017 polls, has 13 MLAs out of 17 in the Lok Sabha seat- Congress has three, while one MLA in independent.
Mandi Lok Sabha constituency is not the stronghold of any political party, as all big leaders, including Sukh Ram, Virbhadra Singh (who became CM of Himachal six times later), his wife former MP, Pratibha Singh and senior BJP leader, Maheshwar Singh have lost Lok Sabha poll from this seat in the past.
What changed the political scenario in 2019 was the switch over by Sukh Ram and Ashray to Congress just before the allotment of tickets. Previous to this, just before 2017 Assembly polls in HP, Sukh Ram had crossed over to BJP from Congress with his son Anil Sharma, a minister in previous Congress government. Anil had won from Mandi Assembly segment on BJP ticket and had become minister in present BJP government. Anil, however, had to leave the ministerial berth after his son, Ashray got Congress ticket from Mandi Lok Sabha seat for 2019 polls. (He is still in BJP, but is not campaigning).
BJP’s Ram Swaroop Sharma, who won in Mandi with over 39,000 votes from then Congress Chief Minister, Virbhadra Singh’s wife, sitting MP, Pratibha Singh in 2014 in ‘Modi wave’, banks on Modi factor and backing of CM in 2019, than his own performance.
“In BJP, party fights the election. I tried to fulfil my promises to people. Some central schemes, which could not take off in Mandi, because of hurdles created by previous Congress government in Himachal, got expedited when BJP government took over,” said Sharma. His crude approach in politics had helped him win his first poll in 2014, but the same is no more seen as a merit after five years term.
A novice, Ashray too relies much on Sukh Ram’s influence and Congress support, holding that Virbhadra Singh is at his back fully.
“My grandfather is credited with telecom revolution. His era will continue till mobiles keep ringing. More so, whenever Sukh Ram and Virbhadra have come together, they have ousted BJP from power,” said soft spoken Ashray. His 93 year old grandfather (Sukh Ram) is electioneering in field for him in his own ‘emotional way’.
Congress insiders, however, said apart from doubts about ageing Sukh Ram’s own grip on ground, there are apprehensions about Virbhadra faction’s backing to Ashray.
“Virbhadra and Sukh Ram have been bitter rivals, and Sukh Ram once ensured that Virbhadra is ousted from power. Though Virbhadra is holding rallies for Ashray, he is repeatedly taking a dig at Sukh Ram too—calling him Aaya Ram Gaya Ram,” they shared.
Sensing the significance of Mandi seat for his own political image, CM Jai Ram Thakur, however, is not taking any chances. Besides going all aggressive against Sukh Ram for his narrow political concerns (only for family) to sway the local sentiment, Thakur has ensured that Prime Minister, Narendra Modi addresses his first poll rally in Himachal in Mandi on 10 May.