Will Sukh Ram factor muddy Congress’ waters in Himachal?

By Vishal Gulati, IANS,

Shimla : Will the conviction of former union minister Sukh Ram in a corruption case affect the election prospects of the Congress in Himachal Pradesh? The ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) feels it will matter in the Lok Sabha polls, but the Congress does not think so.

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The hill state has four Lok Sabha seats – Shimla (Scheduled Caste), Kangra, Mandi and Hamirpur – and the polls will be held May 13.

The electoral battle this time is mainly between the BJP and the Congress, with the Himachal Vikas Congress (HVC), floated by Sukh Ram after parting ways with the Congress in 1997, and the Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP), having disappeared.

Chief Minister Prem Kumar Dhumal said the recent conviction of Sukh Ram by a Delhi court would make things tough for the Congress.

“The conviction of Sukh Ram will matter. We (the BJP) will ask ‘Panditji’ (as Sukh Ram is popularly known) to name the Congress leaders who he often says had conspired to frame him,” Dhumal said.

“Sukh Ram’s allegations that some of the top Congress leaders had been conspiring against him have come true with his conviction,” Dhumal added.

However, Leader of Opposition Vidya Stokes said Sukh Ram’s conviction would not have any impact on the Congress’ election prospects.

“Sukh Ram’s conviction won’t have any effect. The cases were old. Moreover, it is not the final verdict. He is a loyal party man,” she said.

The 82-year-old former minister belongs to Mandi town and commands influence in the area.

On Feb 20 Sukh Ram was held guilty of amassing disproportionate assets to the tune of Rs.42.5 million in a 13-year-old corruption case. He was sentenced to a suspended three- year jail term.

Sukh Ram said he is still a Congress man and would campaign for the party during the elections.

“I am a loyal worker of the grand old party (Congress). I will work for the party till my last breath. Moreover, my son is a Congress legislator,” he said.

“The Congress is likely to face a tough challenge from the BJP in retaining the three seats (Shimla, Kangra and Mandi) it had won in the 2004 elections in view of the latter’s landslide victory in the December 2007 assembly elections,” said P.C. Lohumi, a political analyst.

“The election is quite interesting as the BJP is trying to do a repeat of 1977, when it had won all the seats,” he said.

The HVC, formed by Sukh Ram, merged with the Congress on the eve of the 2004 poll, while the BSP, led by Congress rebel Vijay Mankotia, has also disappeared from the state.

However, the Lok Janshakti Party (LJP), which had won one seat in the 2003 assembly poll, and the Communist Party of India-Marxist (CPI-M), are this time trying to occupy the space vacated by the HVC and the BSP.

While the LJP has announced it will contest all the four seats from the state, the CPI-M has decided to contest the Mandi seat alone.

The Congress has named candidates for all four seats. The suspense over its candidate from Hamirpur was finally over with the party announcing ex-cricketer Madan Lal against Chief Minister Dhumal’s son and sitting BJP MP Anurag Thakur. A section of Congress leaders had favoured as its candidate Narinder Thakur, who had left the BJP and joined the party.

Five-time former Congress chief minister Virbhadra Singh – who is contesting the Lok Sabha elections after 26 years – is pitted against the BJP’s three-time MP, Maheshwar Singh, in Mandi. Sitting MPs Dhani Ram Shandil and Chander Kumar have been fielded by the party in Shimla and Kangra respectively against the BJP’s Virender Kashyap and Rajan Sushant.

The BJP is upbeat about its chances.

The party’s state in charge, Satya Pal Jain, said: “The BJP is quite ahead of its rival (the Congress) in not only declaring the candidates but also in preparing the necessary groundwork for the poll which would be evident in the results.”