It’s ‘Raja Saheb’ vs English lecturer in Himachal

By Baldev S. Chauhan, IANS

Shimla : They are men of contrasting styles. Yet Virbhadra Singh, the incumbent chief minister and an erstwhile royal, and Prem Kumar Dhumal, an English lecturer, are leading one of the most bitterly fought election battles in Himachal Pradesh.

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Singh will be chief minister again in case his Congress party wins. Dhumal is the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) man for the top job in the assembly polls that will see its second and final phase of polling Wednesday.

Both men are successful and popular among the masses. Both also belong to the traditional martial race of Rajputs.

Singh, 73, is a five-time chief minister, four-time MP and two-time central minister in New Delhi with some 45 years of experience in politics.

And if that wasn’t enough, Singh was also crowned king of Rampur Bushahr, a hill area bordering Tibet as a young man. Even to this day friends and foes across the state popularly address him as ‘Raja Saheb’.

Naturally, Singh has had the best possible upbringing. He did his schooling from one of India’s oldest boarding public schools, the Bishop Cotton School (BCS) in Shimla.

He received a post-graduate degree from St. Stephen’s College in Delhi University. Soon after he was taken under his wing by then prime minister Jawaharlal Nehru and joined the Congress party.

Singh was elected to Lok Sabha for the first time in 1962 from Mandi.

With decades of experience, Singh has of late been heard saying: “With nearly half a century in active politics in the Congress there are very few leaders in the entire party who have more experience than me.”

An aggressive leader by style, he likes to lead from the front and has tackled factionalism and pinned down rivals within the party since 1983 when he became chief minister for the first time.

Despite challenges from the likes of Sukh Ram, Ram Lal Thakur and Vidya Stokes, and not being too close to Congress president Sonia Gandhi, Singh is seen as the undisputed leader of the party in Himachal.

“There is no leader in the entire state who has walked every nook and corner of Himachal Pradesh as much as me,” Singh often says.

The lukewarm support from the national leadership is once again clearly visible in these elections as campaigning peaks.

But for a couple of rallies by Gandhi and Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, no national leader has been sent for campaigning to Himachal.

“So it is Virbhadra Singh who ploughs the fields single-handedly as he has done in the past 25 years of elections,” said a close long-time aide.

“Even at 73 he manages just five hours of sleep and hits the campaign trail early, often in freezing conditions in deep winter. Candidates wait for him to attract the crowds and pull them through to victory,” he adds.

But Singh is fighting the ant-incumbency factor, which this time seems the hardest to beat in the hill state’s history of assembly elections since 1990.

And trying to benefit from that is the BJP’s projected chief ministerial candidate Dhumal, who was voted out of power five years ago.

A former college lecturer, Dhumal, 63, does not have an image as suave and urbane as Singh’s but has his own earthy Punjabi accented charm despite being a lecturer in English literature.

With an unassuming manner and quick to mingle with the crowds, he greets little known people by name and wins them over.

Dhumal spent his college and working years in neighbouring Punjab’s Jallandhar city. He was a three-time Lok Sabha MP from Hamirpur, the place he hails from.
Unlike Singh’s aggressive style Dhumal is seen as a soft leader, careful not to rub people the wrong way.

“When my government was in power I have carried out more development work in Rohru, the home constituency of Virbhadra Singh, than he does as chief minister. You can check the facts,” Dhumal has been saying.

He has shown a remarkable ability to be in the good books of top BJP leaders like L.K. Advani, Atal Bihari Vajpayee and Narendra Modi.

This networking has helped him to become the chief ministerial candidate instead of his mentor Shanta Kumar, who lost out in the big race around a fortnight ago.

The second and last phase of the assembly poll takes place Wednesday. Counting is to be held Dec 28.

The first phase of polling for the three tribal seats of Bharmaur, Lahaul and Spiti and Kinnaur took place Nov 14 due to fear of early snowfall in the high mountains of the tribal belt.

According to Chief Electoral Officer Manisha Nanda, there are 4.47 million voters in the state for these 65 seats in the last phase of polling.

There are 324 candidates in the fray. The Arki constituency in Solan district has the largest number of candidates, nine.

While the BJP, the Congress and the Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) have fielded candidates for all seats, the Lok Janshakti Party is contesting 38 seats and the Communist Party of India-Marxist (CPI-M) six. There are also independents.

According to the official, there will be 5,934 polling stations Wednesday. Polling staff and material are being airlifted to some of the snow-bound areas as these are cut off from the rest of the country by road.