The botched investigation and arrest of a senior police officer for a murky custodial death in the Gudiya rape and murder case has again put the spotlight on CM Virbhadra Singh, who is already under pressure over corruption charges for which he and his wife are currently out on bail.
History seems to be repeating itself in the tiny hill state of Himachal for Virbhadra Singh as he prepares himself once again to regain supremacy over the party, amidst calls for his removal by his political detractors and opponents within the party and the government. Bafflingly, this news is almost completely absent from the mainstream media discourse.
Like in 2012 the battle-lines have been drawn within the party and this time it is Virbhadra vs Sukhwinder Singh Sukhu, the party president, and the scene of battle has again shifted to Delhi. In 2012, though Virbhadra was in the opposition and not even the party president, but in a dramatic turn of events Singh laid seige over Delhi with his followers, threatening to launch his own party if he was not given control over the party at the hustings. The Congress high command caved in to Virbhadra’s demands in the wake of overwhelming show of strength by his supporters (former & sitting MLAs) and made him the party president in place of Kaul Singh the then party president and now a minister in Virbhadra’s cabinet.
Virbhadra vindicated the stand taken by him to wage a war against the high command by rising like a phoenix from the ashes and winning the 2012 elections single-handedly, thus maintaining his credentials as a mass leader. This time Virbhadra is at loggerheads with Sukhwinder Singh Sukhu and a handful of ministers in his cabinet.
It is pertinent to note that Sukhwinder Singh Sukhu lost his election from the Nadaun assembly constituency in lower Himachal in 2012 and was later made party president on the behest of Rahul Gandhi with whom he enjoys a good rapport. Miffed with the party president and his political detractors within the party and the government, Virbhadra surprised everyone on the last day of the Vidhan Sabha session by saying that he would not be contesting the 2017 assembly elections thus throwing an open challenge to his opponents within the party apart from taking a dig at them.
Now the swords are out and it is a no holds barred situation for both the camps with Sonia Gandhi calling her man Friday Ahmed Patel from Gujarat to salvage the situation. As Virbhadra camps with his MLAs and supporters in Delhi demanding Sukhu’s ouster, the odds are stacked in his favour since this time unlike in 2012 he is taking on a beleaguered high command battered and bruised by innumerable losses at the hustings.
The Congress high command cannot afford to open another front and annoy Virbhadra given the support and following he commands within the state politics. It is a hard fact that Virbhadra is the best bet to lead the party in the forthcoming elections inspite of allegations of corruption and a CBI enquiry in the disproportionate asset case where he along with his wife are out on bail facing charges of accumulating assets beyond their known sources of income; the case is currently being heard by the Delhi High Court.
Though there is little doubt that Virbhadra would be given charge of the election campaign, it remains to be seen if the party high command gives into Virbhadra’s demand of removing Sukhu from the party President’s post given the latter’s proximity to Rahul Gandhi the Congress vice President.
Virbhadra has been the Chief Minister of the State for six terms starting his innings in 1983, and by virtue of his political craftsmanship and wily politics he ensured that no parallel power centre emerged in the party and any challenge or forseen challenge to his leadership was quickly nipped in the bud.
The resultant power vacuum is all too evident within the state Congress with no clear cut second-rung leadership, and a couple of regional leaders like G S Bali and Kaul Singh making sporadic attempts to wrest the initiative from Virbhadra only to be confined to their own constituencies for fear of losing from their own assembly segments. As the power vaccum haunts Congress in Himachal with no leader apart from Virbhadra capable of garnering votes outside his or her constituency, the options are limited for the party high command and they have no choice but to hand over the entire command to Virbhadra unless they want a revolt within the party just before the elections.
For now it seems that the only hurdle standing between Virbhadra and his total hold and control on the party is the impending court verdict which could not only derail his election campaign but also his remaining political career.
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