From a drubbing in the 2019 Lok Sabha elections and bypolls the same year in Himachal Pradesh to an impressive win in the recent bypolls to the Mandi Lok Sabha seat and the assembly segments of Arki, Fatehpur and Jubbal Kotkhai, KULDEEP SINGH RATHORE has seen it all as the state Congress chief. He started his political career in 1978 by joining the youth movement against the then BJP led government in Himachal and later joined NSUI.
In an interview to SANJEEV KUMAR, Rathore talks on various issues ranging from reuniting various factions in the party to the challenges he faces. Excerpts:
Q. What was the situation and strategy to overcome challenges within the party organisation in Himachal Pradesh after you were appointed the PCC chief?
A. When I was appointed the PCC chief by Rahul Gandhi in January 2019, everything was not well with the party and he told me to take everyone along in the party. In addition, there were Lok Sabha elections in two months and subsequently, there were bypolls to two assembly segments (Pachhad and Dharamshala). There was a wave in favour of BJP owing to their agenda of pseudonationalism which led to our defeat in these elections but we improved on our electoral prospects and made inroads in state politics in Panchayati Raj institution elections. But as these elections were not held on the party symbol and there were counter claims, we asked Chief Minister Jai Ram Thakur to hold Municipal Corporation elections to four bodies (Dharamshala, Mandi, Palampur and Solan) on party symbol to which he agreed. In these elections, our victory march started with Congress winning comprehensively in Solan and Palampur MCs while we lost Dharamshala by a narrow margin. We lost in Mandi MC too as it was Thakur’s home turf and the CM’s card worked well for the ruling party.
In the 2021 bypolls, we created history by winning all four seats as it was for the first time that the ruling party lost bypolls in the state. These elections were important as bypolls were being held in 20 assembly segments, of which we won 12. Our senior party leaders worked unitedly due to our agenda of not allowing any factionalism and in addition, our party workers who were sitting at home, came out and that was our biggest success. Besides, we raised the issue concerning common man from time to time, be it price rise or unemployment. Our party workers too came out to help the needy in Covid pandemic and these factors worked in our favour.
Q. What were the challenges in the 2021 bypolls?
A. BJP’s governments at the Centre and in the state were the biggest challenge as they had all resources like money power and government machinery available while we lacked resources. We are disappointed by the role played by the Election Commission as no action was taken on our complaints since the body is expected to act impartially. However, we won the elections as people’s mandate was with us which contributed to defeating the money power of the ruling party. BJP tried to divert from the key issues of debt liabilities of the state, price rise and unemployment but we kept focus on these issues till the last moment.
Q. Was the people’s mandate against the BJP government or against the price rise or was it the unity of the Congress party?
A. It was a mix of all these as there was anger against the BJP government’s misrule. But to take these issues effectively among the general public, you need strong organisation which we had. Our organisation was very vibrant and we were able to take these issues to the general public effectively, resulting in voters turning in our favour.
Q. Who do you credit for the Congress party’s spectacular win?
A. First of all, the credit goes to all party workers as they performed better in whatever duties they were given. I am the state president and my role is to organise but all leaders and workers put in maximum efforts in the elections.
Q. As there is no unifying figure in the state after senior Congress leader Virbhadra Singh’s death, how do you propose to overcome factionalism in the 2022 assembly polls?
A. After taking over as PCC chief, I discouraged factionalism strongly in the party in which I had succeeded. Even if there was such an attempt, I tried to dissuade such elements and took all senior party leaders along. On the question as to who will be the next CM candidate, it is the prerogative of the party high command to decide. We are only focused on securing the party’s win in the upcoming assembly elections.
Q. If the Congress party doesn’t project any CM candidate in the assembly polls, the BJP will target the party for not doing so citing infighting. They will say there is no leader with state-wide acceptability after Virbhadra Singh in your party. Your take?
A. Virbhadra Singh was a tall leader and he had contributed a lot to the state’s development which we highlighted in recently concluded bypolls and will continue to do in the future too. In addition, there is no need for a CM’s face in the elections as we need a strong and vibrant organisation to contest the polls. There was no CM face in the recent bypolls. The PCC chief (he himself) will lead the elections with the help of Leader of opposition Mukesh Agnihotri and other senior leaders of the party.
Q.What action will be taken against rebels or workers who worked against the party?
A. We had taken action against rebels and we will take action against anyone who had damaged the party’s interests in the bypolls. As party president, my duty is to maintain discipline and I will maintain it at all costs.
Q. What are your views on over 12,000 persons selecting NOTA option in bypoll to the Mandi parliamentary constituency?
A. I feel that all political parties should come together and think about the trend of voters electing NOTA in the electoral process. If the people were dissatisfied with the ruling party then these votes should have been cast in our favour but that didn’t happen. We will definitely give a thought to this trend and take corrective measures in future.
Q. What is your take on Covid management in the state by the Jai Ram Thakur government and Himachal becoming the first state in the country to vaccinate 100 per cent eligible population with Covid vaccine?
A. The state government had failed on all fronts during the Covid pandemic and the state as well as Prime Minister Narendra Modi-led central government failed to extend a helping hand to the needy. Various sectors, such as farming, tourism, MSMEs and youth too didn’t get any help. The entire medical system collapsed with even the ministers refusing to get treated at hospitals.
On Covid vaccination claims, these are mere figures as we witnessed the claims of vaccinating 100 crore people but we don’t know as to how many people are vaccinated with double dose of the Covid vaccine. Now they are comparing vaccination with the US which has much less population as compared to India. If we have to compare the vaccination campaign, we should compare it with China. In China, they had vaccinated 80 per cent of the population with double dose but in India, I don’t think it will be more than 20 per cent. The BJP government is only befooling the general public by giving such vague figures.