The appointment of KULDEEP SINGH RATHORE, 60, as president of the Himachal Pradesh Congress Committee in January 2019 had come as a surprise in the state’s political circles.

He was considered to be a loyalist of former Union minister Anand Sharma, but was backed for the coveted post by state party heavyweight and ex-CM Virbhadra Singh, Sharma’s bête noire.

Rathore has come a long way since then, seeking to prove his mettle in the challenging Covid times by resorting to street protests against various alleged failures of the Jai Ram Thakur-led BJP government.

He has also continued to grapple with the raging game of oneupmanship within the Congress in the hill state — especially the challenge coming from his younger party rivals.

An articulate leader and a lawyer by training, Rathore has been a party organisational man over the last four decades without any electoral background, even as the profile of this emerging Congress leader is expected to evolve in coming days.

In an interview with ARCHANA PHULL, Rathore, dealt with a range of burning political issues.

Excerpts:

Q. How is the Congress party doing in Himachal under your leadership?

A. The Congress is playing the role of an effective Opposition in HP. Apart from holding strong protests against the Narendra Modi government on various national issues, the party is continuously raising its voice against anti-people approach and failures of the BJP government in the state.

We fulfilled our political as well as social responsibility in Covid times as people have a lot of expectations from us as an Opposition party. The BJP government in Himachal has just left everything to ‘Ram Bharosey’ (God’s mercy) amid the Covid crisis. The Covid cases and deaths are increasing.

The government is not even able to provide beds to Covid patients and there is total failure of governance. In such a situation, the Congress is helping people and even hospitals with safety equipment. The party ensured that poor people and migrant workers could get food and reach their homes.

Q. The Congress lost the HP Assembly polls in 2017 for which infighting was one of the key reasons.Have you been able to check it?

A. Along with some infighting, I think a major reason for it was that the Modi government had misguided the people with its slogan of ‘double engine’. People were told that if they elect the BJP in HP, the state will benefit with Centre’s help. But it was a pure lie and the state has not got anything.

The Centre did not extend help to Himachal amid the Covid crisis or otherwise. After I became HP Congress president, I tried to bring all senior Congress leaders like Virbhadra Singh, Vidya Stokes, Anand Sharma, Sukh Ram, Viplove Thakur together.

The party has been more united in HP since I took charge. To the younger leaders also, I say that I don’t have any personal agenda and am open to dialogue if someone has suggestions for any improvement. The BJP is in power in the state and at the Centre. It is time to struggle, put up a strong fight against the BJP and make a comeback in HP in 2022.

The personal ambitions should not be a hurdle in that. Everyone, senior and young leaders alike, should contribute to this and gear up for the next Assembly polls unitedly.

Q. Isn’t your non-electoral background a disadvantage in the political battlefield?

A. No. I don’t think so. The party high command picked me for the prestigious post looking at my organisational skills and capabilities. My non-electoral background is rather an advantage for me. I come from Theog area in Shimla district, which already had an established leader like Vidya Stokes.

I never tried to destabilise the Congress and have always devoted all my time to strengthen the party, whatever responsibility I was given. I want to bring the party back to power in HP and don’t have any personal ambition. I have left my political future in the hands of the party high command.

Q. At the national level, the Congress party seems to be beset by fresh internal turmoil after its dismal performance in the Bihar Assembly polls and countrywide bypolls.What do you think of the situation?

A. These are issues which arise in any partry and are settled through discussion. Just a difference of opinion. The Congress party is united under the leadership of Sonia Gandhi and Rahul Gandhi.

Q. A section of the RJD or even the Congress has called the Congress the ‘weakest link’ in the Mahagathbandhan Alliance that led to its defeat in Bihar despite the Tejashwi-led RJD becoming the single largest party there. Your comments?

A. There is no question of the Congress being the weakest link in Mahagathbandhan. It was a united fight and none can say that somebody was strong and the others were weak. The Congress has played its role in ensuring the victory of those in the Mahagathbandhan.

Q. An RJD leader even said that Rahul Gandhi was having a picnic at Priyanka Gandhi’s house in Shimla in the midst of the Bihar polls. How would you respond to such charges?

A. It is a wrong accusation. Rahul Gandhi campaigned in every nook and corner of Bihar in the polls. He worked hard and extensively toured the state to campaign for Mahagathbandhan.

Q. Former Union minister Kapil Sibal has now openly expressed his resentment over the prevailing state of affairs in the Congress party, voicing his dissent over the party leadership issue again.Ashok Gehlot and Salman Khurshid have joined issue with him. How do you look at this new round of infighting among your senior Congress leaders?

A. I have been associated with the Congress organisation for long. I feel that all the internal issues concerning the party should be raised at the party platform, not in public. If anyone in the party has any grievances, they have to be taken up within the party.

Discipline is very important in any political party. Even when there are internal issues regarding party affairs in states, they are brought to the notice of the party high command in Delhi and are resolved within the party democratically.

Q. When will the AICC leadership issue be resolved once and for all? And who should really lead the Congress party?

A. No comments. Whatever be, the role of the Gandhi family in the Congress party can neither be ignored nor undermined. They have been a unifying force in the party and the Congress politics revolves around them.’