ASHA KUMARI is an accomplished Congress leader from Himachal Pradesh. She has been All India Congress Committee (AICC) in-charge of Punjab from the time the Congress was in Opposition there. A former minister, Asha is a six-time MLA from Dalhousie. Her mother was a politician in Madhya Pradesh. A founder member of the NSUI, Asha learnt the ropes in politics from Congress stalwarts like ex-Madhya Pradesh chief minister Arjun Singh and former HP CM Virbhadra Singh. In HP, she was once known as a “crisis manager” for six-time CM Virbhadra. Asha came into the spotlight when she, as in-charge of Punjab affairs, helped Capt Amarinder Singh steer the party to a spectacular victory in the 2017 Assembly polls. A gritty politician and an impressive orator, Asha has faced ups and downs in her political career, but has always displayed remarkable political acumen and fighting spirit. In a freewheeling interview with ARCHANA PHULL, she candidly speaks her mind on a wide range of issues. Excerpts:

Q. How difficult it is for a woman to survive in politics?

A. It is easy to survive in any profession, if you are actually working. Whatever handicaps women face in any other profession, they face the same in politics too. But unlike in other fields, there are few women in the Legislative Assembly. When I was elected (to the HP Assembly) for the first time, we were three women MLAs from the Congress, the other two being Vidya Stokes and Viplove Thakur. Currently, I am the only woman MLA from the Congress. I agree there is a tendency to overlook women till they prove their worth.

Q.Why did your political relations with Virbhadra Singh get strained?

A. In politics, the situation can change anytime. I don’t blame him for this. Maybe because of the stands he took. But whatever be the politics, our personal relations have never changed. He has always been a fatherly figure to me.

Q.You have traversed a long journey in politics.Did you get your due?

A. Right from the beginning, I have been an organisation person and have contributed to the Congress in whatever capacity the party wanted me in. I am happy that while I was primary education minister in the 1990s, we brought many reforms and opened so many schools, which paved the way for robust primary schooling in Himachal. I was made AICC secretary in 2011 as co-incharge of Jharkhand. In 2016, I was elevated and was made AICC in-charge of Punjab. Punjab has been my most satisfying assignment, whether about winning Assembly polls or Parliament polls there. Capt Amarinder Singh has been able to do a lot of good work despite challenges like terrorism, drug issues, liquor mafia etc. Still there is room for improvement.

Q.What about the Congress affairs in Himachal Pradesh?

A. For any party, there is always scope for improvement. For Congress, there is a sudden vacuum in leadership in Himachal as Virbhadra Singh dominated the party for long. Before him, former CMs Thakur Ram Lal and Dr Y S Parmar, were there. There were mass leaders like Sant Ram, Sat Mahajan, Thakur Karam Singh and Guman Singh. In those times, there was no direct threat for Congress from any other party. Now it is a challenging task.

Q.Why is the second-line Congress leadership missing in HP?

A. There is second-line leadership, but it has to develop and come out of the shadows. Right now, none matches even 25 per cent of leaders like Virbhadra Singh. In the minds of people, Singh has a huge imprint. It is a transition phase.

Q. Congress has been in turmoil since 23 of its top leaders sent a joint letter to Sonia Gandhi last month, seeking sweeping reforms in the party.How do you look at it?

A. The matter was taken up in the Congress Working Committee, of which I am a member. It passed the resolution and approved the process to elect the president. In Covid time, AICC sessions can’t be held, with 4,000 members, until safety protocols allow it. Sonia Gandhi graciously addressed the colleagues.

Q.They called for full time and effective leadership, which is both visible and effective on the ground. Don’t you think if 23 senior Congress leaders flag such deficiencies the crisis facing your party must be staggering and unprecedented?

A. I have not read the letter. It’s only in bits and pieces that we have heard the contents of the letter. We are only picking up words from here and there to show the crisis. The Congress party is fully united under the leader ship of Sonia Gandhi and Rahul Gandhi and is working in the field. I can say there is no crisis. Some voiced their opinion as we are a democratic party. Congress workers have full faith in the leadership and they continue to fight fascist and non-secular forces in the country.

Q. There were complaints later that the CWC did not really discuss and address the concerns and suggestions expressed by the ‘group of 23’. Your comments?

A. All members of CWC, including me and the ones who wrote the letter, participated in the meeting. After everybody spoke, a resolution was adopted. We are not a fascist party like others.

Q. Do you think a non-Gandhi can and should also become president of the Indian National Congress?

A. Whoever is chosen by Congress delegates will become the president. When election takes place, their choice will prevail. Out of over 100 Congress presidents so far, only four were Gandhis. If Congress delegates and workers feel that the right person to lead is a Gandhi, it will be a Gandhi. Sonia Gandhi and Rahul Gandhi have led from the front. Today, Rahul Gandhi has been raising issues which turn out to be all correct, including Covid-19 crisis, China conflict, unemployment or migrant workers problems.

Q. Since 2014, the Congress party has been grappling with an existential crisis, losing two back-to-back general elections and state after state. What is your take on this critical issue?

A. We need to introspect in the states where we lost. Not that Congress is weak. Maybe we were not able to project our agenda with that much force in the states. We were winners in MP, Karnataka, Goa, Meghalaya, but the BJP used foul means to topple the governments. It’s not Congress which is losing, but the BJP has managed to come into power by any means. There was unethical use of social media by BJP in Parliament polls. There are international reports that swayed Indian minds. Managing EVMs is another reason. I see no reason why we don’t go back to the ballot, when all the developed countries have switched from EVMs to ballot. In 2024, Congress will certainly perform much better if ballot is used.