VIRBHADRA SINGH has had a long, remarkable journey in public life. One of the senior-most politicians in the country, Singh, 86, had been chief minister of Himachal Pradesh six times.

He had been a former Union minister too. A nine-time MLA, Singh was also elected to the Lok Sabha several times. He is known for his leadership, administrative skills and for strong bonding with the masses of his state.

In the course of his six-decadelong innings in the Congress party as well as in electoral politics, he has time and again proved that he is a political fighter — and an intrepid survivor. He bounced back every time there was an effort to write him off — by his rivals in the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) or his opponents within his own Congress party.

After the Congress’s defeat in the 2017 Himachal Assembly polls, the ageing and frail leader seemed to have slowed down with health issues restricting his activities and younger leaders taking over the reins of the Congress in the hill state. However, he still remains a formidable leader both within the Congress and in the state.

In a freewheeling interview with ARCHANA PHULL, Virbhadra shared his thoughts on multiple issues, ranging from Covid to governance, state affairs to Congress politics.

Excerpts:

Q. How do you assess the Covid-19 situation in Himachal Pradesh?

A. Himachal is not much affected by Covid-19. The pandemic is there internationally and nationally. But in our state, it’s limited. Many areas of HP are still Covid-19 free.

Q. Do you think the BJP-ruled Himachal government could have handled the Covid-19 situation in a better way?

A. There have been shortcomings. But Covid-19 didn’t spread to the entire state like other parts of the country. I think, whatever could have been done to check the spread of coronavirus in Himachal Pradesh, was done.

Q. Do you think the state government’s decision to open tourism in the midst of pandemic is right?

A. I think, allowing people to come to Himachal for tourism during Covid-19 crisis is not right. Boosting the economy at the cost of public health is not correct. Public health is very important. If it is not so, what was the need for imposing lockdown?

Q. Do you think the Congress played a positive role as an Opposition party amid the Covid-19 crisis in HP?

A. Yes. The Congress played a constructive role. The party suggested to the state government from time to time to take steps to check the spread of coronavirus in HP. The Congress party has got a good response on the ground.

Q. The Congress is still divided in Himachal. Two separate lunch meetings were hosted recently, first by former minister Kaul Singh Thakur and then by you?

A. The lunch hosted by me was not political. It was a deferred lunch from 23 June (his birthday). I have a vast following in the Congress and Himachal. People wanted to come over.

Q. What do you think about the ‘new era’ of politics in HP, with younger leaders taking over the reins of the Congress and the BJP?

A. The stalwarts are playing their own roles, whether in the Congress or the BJP. In the Congress, I brought the younger leadership like Mukesh Agnihotri (Leader of Opposition) to the fore.

Q. What about BJP CM, Jai Ram Thakur? Don’t you think the state required an experienced leader during the Covid-19 crisis?

A. I don’t want to make personal remarks. What to talk about this when everyone knows the kind of situation (prevailing) at the national level.

Q. The BJP elevated Thakur as CM in 2017, eyeing the next 15 years of rule in Himachal. What do you think?

A. I don’t think this is right.

Q. Many in the Congress allege that you didn’t allow strong second-line leadership to come up in HP. Is it right?

A. It’s not like that. The Congress is strong in HP. The party is well organised and the legislature party is playing an active role in the Assembly. I have never stopped anyone from coming forward in politics. In any party, new leaders should be given a chance if they are competent. I always did that.

Q. Is it true that some seniors in the Congress could not become Chief Minister because of you?

A. If they could not hit their target in Himachal Pradesh, it’s not my fault. It is their incompetence if they could not rise. I think ambition is good, but overambition is not good. If some people think that they could not get the CM’s chair because of me, they should do their self-evaluation.

Q. What is your reaction to Congress leader Sachin Pilot’s move against CM Ashok Gehlot in Rajasthan? Are the youngsters in Congress demoralised?

A. I don’t think the young Congress leaders are demoralised. Rajasthan Chief Minister Ashok Gehlot is an experienced and popular leader in the state. He has a mass base. Sachin Pilot is an emerging leader but is not as experienced as the CM. His time will also come. He is not being ignored. But experience is very important in politics.

Q. Do you think the Congress party has a chance of revival at the national level?

A. Congress is still ruling in some states in the country. It has a bright future. The party has strong roots. It has given many stalwarts to the nation, who did not have any personal ambition and wanted to serve the nation. The old Congressmen believed in sacrifice and true ‘Rashtravad’. The Congress party will certainly reemerge.

Q. There was a talk of Rahul Gandhi becoming Congress president again on social media sometime back. What do you think about it?

A. The party has learnt the lesson from past mistakes. Rahul Gandhi’s tenure as Congress president was also good. But he was a youngster. Maybe some mistakes occurred because of lack of experience. Now he is much more politically mature than before.

Q. What do you think about today’s politics?

A. Politics is just about a race now. The level has gone down. Overambition is common.

Q. How about your political journey?

A. I have got a lot. I rose to the level which I think I deserved. I never blocked anyone in politics. I got the opportunity to work and serve the people of the country and the state for a long time. I contributed to the overall development of Himachal Pradesh, whether in road connectivity, education, health or social sectors. The hill state has emerged as a model of development in the country in many ways due to policies of the past Congress governments.

Q. Do you plan to retire from electoral politics in the run-up to the 2022 HP Assembly polls?

A. Politics is not about power only. I have no plan to retire from politics. I take an active part in party activities. I will give my services wherever the Congress party needs me. If in any way I am useful to the party, I will play a positive role. I will serve Congress till I am alive.

Q What about ‘ageing’ Virbhadra? Do you have the same energy and spirit you are known for?

A. I am limitless.