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With no CM’s face, jittery Congress trying to keep flock united for Himachal polls

Pratibha Singh, chief of Pradesh Congress Committee of Himachal Pradesh

Having decided not to project any Chief Ministerial face in the upcoming Himachal assembly polls, the Congress wants to field all 20 sitting MLAs and give tickets to senior leaders including AICC joint secretaries and former party presidents in the state.

The Congress is worried as two sitting MLAs, including the party’s working president in the state Pawan Kajal and Nalagarh MLA Lakhwinder Rana have recently quit the party and joined the BJP giving a pre-election jolt to the party.

The aim of the Congress is to minimise the infighting and split in its ranks over the distribution of tickets. The denial of tickets to sitting MLAs would mean giving an opportunity to the ruling BJP or AAP to poach on the Congress leaders.

With no clear leadership face in the state Congress, various leaders are eyeing the Chief Minister’s post which has given rise to factionalism in the party

Insiders say former union minister Anand Sharma ‘s name was also proposed for the assembly polls by a few members from Shimla but he refused to oblige the party.

Sharma, who is part of the dissident G-23 camp, had resigned as chairman of the Congress steering committee, was present at the meeting of the Pradesh Election Committee that met in New Delhi on Monday that approved the names of all sitting party MLAs to contest the assembly polls. Besides the names of senior leaders like Kaul Singh Thakur, Chander Kumar  and Sudhir Sharma, former minister and Rajesh Dharmani—a former Chief Parliamentary, who is also AICC general secretary, were also recommended.

Others who figured in the districts included former PCC presidents Kuldeep Kumar, Viplove Thakur and Kuldeep Rathore. Kaul Singh Thakur, a veteran has also served as PCC president but was asked to resign the post when Virbhadra Singh put a condition before the party in 2012 to project him as the CM’s face. However, it is quite unlikely that Viplove Thakur, a two-time Rajya Sabha member will contest the next poll.

Two other AICC secretaries Anirudh Singh –a two-time MLA is also a potential name from Kasumpti (Shimla) while R.S Bali, AICC secretary and son of Congress senior late G S Bali will be fielded from Nagrota Bhagwan –a constituency Bali had dominated since 1998 but lost by a narrow margin to his own protégé — Arun Mehra alias Kukka, who had joined the BJP.

Now, after the demise of Bali Sr—a Kangra strongman, who was eyeing the Chief Ministerial position, his son will take forward his legacy, said a senior Congress MLA, who was present in the meeting of the Pradesh election committee, held in Delhi.

Majority of the 19 members, besides all AICC secretaries and heads of all frontal organisations, attended the meeting chaired by Pradesh Congress Committee President Pratibha Singh.

Others included Congress Legislature Party (CLP) leader Mukesh Agnihotri and chairman of state campaign committee Sukhwinder Singh Sukhu.

Unlike earlier times when Virbhadra Singh used to have his way with the party high command to get maximum tickets for his loyalists, most of the second–line leaders have not opened-up their cards so far. It is a well-known fact that the Congress campaign committee incharge Sukhwinder Sukhu—a Chief Ministerial post aspirant will try to pocket maximum tickets for his loyalists to strengthen his position.

Virbhadra Singh’s wife Pratibha Singh, who heads the PCC, has her own plans to remain in a dominant position hoping that her husband’s legacy will work in her favour. She had won the Mandi parliamentary byelection in November 2021 after Virbhadra Singh’s demise.

The leader of opposition Mukesh Agnihotri, who was a staunch loyalist of the former Chief Minister, has been most aggressive against the ruling government within and outside the state assembly.

To score over AAP, the Congress has released a charter of 10 pledges including implementation of Old pension scheme,300  units of free power, monthly financial assistance of Rs 1500 to all women in the age between 18 to 60 years, five lakh jobs to youths, buying 10 litres of milk from each farmer and cow dung @ Rs 2 per kg on the lines of Chhattisgarh.

Yet with no strong leadership at the centre to match the BJP star campaigns like Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Amit Shah, the Congress is banking on a powerful myth about the state’s bipolar politics that has settled down on change of ruling government every five year.Also, that BJP victory in UP, Uttarakhand, Manipur and Goa will not impact its prospects because of its solid base in the state, unlike the states where the organisation was in shambles.

“We had 22 seats in the 68 member House in the 2017 pro-Modi wave and thereafter we won all bypolls including Mandi, the CM’s home district. The Congress will form the next government” says Agnihotri. Yet, he doesn’t deny factionalism in the state and absence of stalwarts like Virbhadra Singh –a weak point.