Virbhadra moves to grab reins of power

By Vishal Gulati, IANS,

Shimla : The Congress policy of not announcing the chief minister’s name before the elections in the state has come under fire by its own senior leader and union minister Virbhadra Singh, who is hoping to grab the reins of poll-bound Himachal Pradesh.

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The five-time chief minister has openly declared that the party’s policy needs to be changed.

He himself is in the race for the chief minister’s post. The assembly elections are due some time in October this year.

Popularly known as Raja Saab, Virbhadra Singh has made clear his intention of occupying the coveted post with his show of strength at an information function in his private residence, Holly Lodge, in Shimla Tuesday — when another Congress leader and union minister Anand Sharma was on a daylong official visit to the state.

Sharma was in Palampur town in Kangra district to announce incentives to revive the Kangra tea industry. At the same time, he was called to address the rally there by state party chief Kaul Singh, also in the race for chief minister.

“The policy not to declare a leader during the electioneering is not doing well. People wanted to know for whom they were voting,” Virbhadra Singh told reporters at his residence.

He said the party’s experiment in Punjab of announcing the chief ministerial candidate just a few days before the polling didn’t work well for the party.

The union minister for micro, small and medium enterprises, currently touring the state, also said it was high time for the party to declare a leader to lead the Congress’ campaign in the state.

It was a virtual parade of strength at his residence with 14 of the 23 Congress legislators and equal number of former legislators present to back their leader ahead of the assembly polls.

“It was a meeting (with the legislators) to discuss how to bring the Congress back to power. People of the state would not forgive us if we fail to achieve this. For this, everyone in the Congress agrees that we have to be united,” he said.

Asked about his plans to be chief minister again, Virbhadra Singh said: “I am at the disposal of the high command. Whatever responsibility I am given, I will do that.”

Only six legislators — Kaul Singh, Sukhwinder Sukhu, G.S. Bali, Rajesh Dharmani, Rajesh Kalia and Lakhwinder Rana — attended Sharma’s programme in Palampur.

But the former chief minister clarified Sharma was on an official visit to Palampur in connection with a function of the Tea Board of India. “It was an official function, not the party’s. His function was planned much in advance. Both the events should not be construed as an indication of a battle of supremacy.”

Interestingly, leader of opposition Vidya Stokes was conspicuously absent from both the functions. Her name figured on posters and banners to welcome Sharma.

Political observers believe that Virbhadra Singh’s get-together at his residence is a clear indication to the party high command that he’s still a mass leader.

“Whatever Raja Saab says is not only given prominence in the local media but is also responded to by none else than chief minister (Prem) Dhumal himself. He is a charismatic leader, who can’t be ignored,” a former Congress legislator said.

(Vishal Gulati can be contacted at [email protected])