As the assembly elections in the state draw closer, the infighting in the Congress has intensified with an unrelenting CM Virbhadra locked in a no holds barred duel against party President Sukhwinder Singh Sukhu and AICC general secretary and in-charge of party affairs in Himachal Sunil Kumar Shinde.
On Shinde’s last visit to Himachal in the crucial Kangra district, Virbhadra who was also in Shahpur, Kangra ignored Shinde and chose not to meet him even though he was just 20 kms away. Taking potshots at both Shinde and Sukhu, Virbhadra said that Shinde was not the final authority on party affairs in Himachal and that Sukhu was in primary school when he was the party President.
The Himachal CM has been baying for Sukhu’s blood seeking his removal from the post of party President, while Shinde has been rallying behind Sukhu much to the chagrin of Virbhadra who has been advocating that party Presidents should rise up from the ranks and not be nominated like the current party president.
While Virbhadra has cited his busy schedule in the State for not being able to meet the party high command, his opponent along with Shinde have met the party bigwigs in Delhi and seem to have the support of the party Vice-President Rahul Gandhi, spurring Shinde to announce that Sukhu will not be removed from the party President’s post.
A defiant Virbhadra is on a foundation laying spree as he criss crosses the State doling out sops to all segments of the State populace and wooing the electorate before the statutory code of conduct is imposed by the State Election Commission. A showdown between the two factions resulting in a virtual show of strength seems inevitable and the number game favours Virbhadra.
While Sukhu has the support of just of 3 ministers in the Virbhadra cabinet, the latter can count on the support and loyality of the vast majority of Congress MLAs and ministers in the current assembly. In a game of one upmanship it would be interesting to see who blinks first.
Given Virbhadra’s previous track record in similar situations, it looks that he is prepared for a face off with the High Command and would not accept Sukhu as the party President as the State goes to the hustings. How the Congress High Command reacts to this imbroglio would decide the fate of the party in the coming elections.
Though the Congress is fighting anti incumbency and the Chief Minister is himself battling corruption charges in a disproportionate assets case where he is out on bail, the popularity of the CM has not waned to the extent that the Congress can be totally written off in the run up to the elections unless factionalism leads to its self annihilation.
The ball is in the court of Sonia Gandhi who in consultation with her advisor and crisis manager Ahmed Patel will decide the fate of party President Sukhu, and with it perhaps the fate of the Congress in the State. If she wants Virbhadra -the main vote catcher of the party- on her side then she will have to sacrifice her son’s favourite Sukhu at the altar of Virbhadra Singh’s ego, otherwise Congress would be split down the middle and the elections would be lost before they are fought.
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