NEW DELHI (TIP): At an age when mostmen’s thoughts turn to retirement,Himachal Pradesh Congress chiefVirbhadra Singh has been in overdrive,working the crowds in his state over thesepast few weeks. Covering as many as 60 ofthe state’s 68 assembly constituencies, the80-year-old Congress veteran has deliveredthe state to the Congress with a comfortable36 seats with the incumbent BJP getting 26.If there are any lessons to be learnt fromthis for the Congress, it is the need tonurture strong regional leaders. Mr Singhhas been chief minister of the state fivetimes and it is said that no one knows thestate and its people quite as well as him. So,it was a gamble that paid off for theCongress.
His opponents had hoped that theallegations of corruption against himwould eat into the Congress’s vote share.But what the BJP did not seem to factor inis that many in its own state leadership arenot considered pure as the driven snow. Itwas around the same time that chargeswere being levelled against Mr Singh thatBJP president Nitin Gadkari came under acloud for alleged corruption. So, in effect,the BJP’s attempt to tarnish Mr Singh’simage did not work.The Congress’s decision to hand overcharge of the campaign to Mr Singh servedto galvanise the party. It was this which hasenabled this victory in the state. TheCongress failed in Gujarat preciselybecause it did not have a strong state leaderto take on Narendra Modi.
The victory inHimachal should perhaps serve as a wakeupcall for the Congress. It has to allowstrong local leaders to flourish and managethings rather than have to follow dictatesfrom the high command. It is always a pluspoint if the local leader is seen to have thesupport of the central leadership, but he orshe should be allowed a certain degree ofautonomy.Singh was given a free hand and he usedhis experience and reach to wrest the statefrom the BJP. The fact that Mr Singh is aformer raja also probably worked in hisfavour in a state which though highlydeveloped still retains many feudalcharacteristics. For the Congress, which isno doubt smarting from its defeat inGujarat, this win in Himachal willcertainly lift its spirits a bit.
How BJP aimed at Virbhadra, shot itself
The outcome of the assembly polls in bothHimachal Pradesh and Gujarat is onexpected lines, and demonstrates beyondany doubt that it is on account of two verystrong regional leaders. It can be safelyassumed that while Narendra Modi’sleadership helped the BJP score animpressive win in Gujarat, Virbhadra Singhwas the one who led the Congress to victoryin Himachal.Significantly, the tirade of corruptionlaunched by the BJP against Virbhadra inHimachal backfired essentially because thepeople were not convinced that the five-timechief minister was guilty. In fact, they sawbigger corruption in the government ofoutgoing chief minister Prem KumarDhumal, and allegations of financialirregularities against BJP chief NitinGadkari made things very difficult for thesaffron brigade.
In addition, Virbhadra — who was alsobeing targeted by an ineffective section inhis own party — spearheaded the Congresscampaign and addressed meetings in asmany as 60 out of 68 assembly segments. Hisdetractors were thoroughly exposed whenparty nominees themselves requested him toaddress rallies in their areas. No other stateleader was as much in demand, and some ofthem could not even get out of theirconstituencies — given the tight positionthey found themselves in.During his campaign, Virbhadra did notshift focus from the Dhumal government’salleged wrongdoings, and used his vastexperience — extending over 50 years inpublic life — to touch a chord in every partof the state. While doing so, he energisedparty workers and simultaneously put theBJP on the defensive.
He exploited the riftwithin the BJP, between Dhumal and ShantaKumar, to his advantage and was able toconvince the electorate that the presentgovernment was robbing the state of itsresources and amassing wealth outside. Asfar as the common people were concerned,they responded positively primarily becausethey felt that this could be the last time hewas leading the campaign.It is virtually certain that Virbhadra willbe made chief minister for the sixth time,even though he has left it on Sonia Gandhi.The party probably realises the importanceof a strong regional leader, and thisunderstanding may also extend to otherstates too.The Himachal victory is Virbhadra’sChristmas and New Year gift to his party.