Starting his career as a journalist, MUKESH AGNIHOTRI switched to politics and went on to make a mark as a young Congress leader in Himachal Pradesh. A rising star in the HP Congress, Agnihotri is now leading the party in the HP Assembly as Leader of the Opposition.
He was working as a senior correspondent with the Jansatta newspaper, where he served for 10 years, in Shimla when he first contested elections successfully, from Santokhgarh (now Haroli) Assembly constituency in Una district in 2003.
This was on the insistence of then chief minister Virbhadra Singh, a Congress stalwart and six-time CM, who recently passed away. Agnihotri has won all subsequent Assembly polls since then. In 2012, he was inducted by Virbhadra into his Cabinet and was given the Industry ministry with additional portfolios of Labour and Employment, Parliamentary Affairs, and Information and Public Relations.
In an interview with SANJEEV KUMAR, he spoke on a range of issues relating to HP political affairs.
Q. What is your assessment of the Jai Ram Thakur government’s performance over the last 4 years?
A. The Jai Ram Thakur-led BJP government has failed on all fronts, be it financial management, reining in mafias or handling the Covid pandemic situation in Himachal. The state’s debt is likely to cross Rs 85,000 crore when Thakur will demit office in 2022 with this year’s projection reaching Rs 70,000 crore.
The government didn’t take any steps to cut expenses or take austerity measures and now they have appointed many chairmen, vice chairmen — an issue they had vociferously taken up during the previous Congress regime.
The ruling BJP is organising various party programmes at the expense of the state exchequer and the government didn’t fulfil its poll promises. There is now ‘double engine sarkar’ in the state but nothing concrete has been done and even the promises of developing 59 national highways, expanding the rail network, setting up an international airport at Mandi or expanding existing airports in the state have not been fulfilled.
The Thakur government has promised to bring Rs 1 lakh crore investments but nothing concrete has been done on the ground. The loot of state resources is going on and the government has failed to rein in mafias in mining, liquor, forest, contracts and transfers, which are ruling the roost in HP.
The BJP government has become a government of announcements as various projects worth crores of rupees are being announced for various constituencies but the reality is that even old promises are not being fulfilled.
CM Thakur has failed to control price rise as the prices of essential commodities have risen manifold. The government has even failed to provide employment to the youth and in the recruitments that are being made in the state preference is being given to party workers while ignoring merit.
The BJP government has fudged the data of Covid deaths and failed to provide any relief to the people amid the pandemic and widespread corruption. There are several problems that are plaguing the state and need to be addressed but the BJP is still upbeat about its electoral gains in recent elections (Lok Sabha and Assembly bypolls) banking on them to get a victory in 2022 Assembly elections.
Even government officials are fed up with the BJP’s functioning. So, Himachal is heading towards a change of government that is going to happen in the 2022 polls.
Q. And what is your take on the state of the HP Congress, especially in the wake of the demise of its tallest leader Virbhadra Singh?
A. Virbhadra Singh was a tall leader and he was an institution in himself with over 60 years of experience in politics. He remained the CM for over 22 years and was a Lok Sabha MP five times. He held various party positions including the post of the HP Congress president.
It will be tough to fill the void that is created by his death as such personalities who wield such influence or command over masses are very rare. We will move ahead as per the planning and strategy prepared by the Congress high command.
Q. Do you think the Congress, riven by factions, is capable of emerging as a serious challenger to the BJP in the polls and why?
A. No, it is not the case (factionalism in the HP Congress). Sonia Gandhi and Rahul Gandhi are our leaders and we will follow their directions in letter and spirit. There is massive outrage against the BJP government which will fall due to the mistakes it has made during its rule.
The Congress party will function as per the directions of the state incharge and former Union minister Rajeev Shukla and AICC secretary incharge Sanjay Dutt, who are regularly visiting the state to formulate strategy for upcoming elections.
Our party and MLAs have performed their duties better than the BJP government. We will highlight the shortcomings and failures of the Thakur government in the court of public which will pave the way for the Congress to form its government in Himachal in 2022.
Q. What, in your view, should be the Congress’s top priority in the state now?
A. I, as an Opposition leader, and our party leaders are raising the issues regarding the development of the state and the failure of the BJP government — and taking these to the people’s court is our top priority. We are now focusing on strengthening the state Congress for which consultations are going on within the party.
We are now preparing for the upcoming bypolls to three Assembly constituencies and the Mandi Lok Sabha seat besides the 2022 Assembly polls. The party high command is also focusing on these and we will work as per their directions.
Q. Who will be the Congress party’s face for the 2022 HP polls?
A. It is the prerogative of the party high command and the issue will be addressed by senior party leaders at the right time.