Himachal Pradesh elections: Congress faces anti-incumbency, infighting ahead of Assembly polls

Shimla, Sep 11: The Congress is facing an uphill task in poll-bound Himachal Pradesh, with infighting and anti-incumbency emerging as the key challenges to its electoral prospects.

Chief Minister Virbhadra Singh has been demanding the removal of HPCC chief Sukhwinder Singh Sukhu and a worried central leadership of Congress is busy placating its old warhorse who has steered the party in the hill state for several decades.

Just when it seemed a solution was in sight, with Virbhadra getting a long-awaited audience with Congress president Sonia Gandhi last week, the AICC’s general secretary for Himachal Pradesh, Sushilkumar Shinde, ruled out Sukhu’s removal.

“There will be no change in party leadership,” Shinde told reporters in Chamba where he is on a four-day tour to meet district level leaders.

The Himachal Pradesh Assembly polls are due later this year.

Virbhadra has maintained that he will neither contest the polls nor lead the campaign with Sukhu heading the Himachal unit.

He had earlier threatened to quit politics and told party MLAs in a recent meeting that he would not be able to work with Sukhu and withdraw from elections if the latter continues in his post.

With Shinde taking a hard public stand, it remains to be seen how the chief minister will respond.

Earlier this week, Virbhadra skipped a key meeting convened by Rahul Gandhi in the national capital after he came to know that the party vice president was not inclined to replace Sukhu.

According to sources, the Congress wanted a “compromise formula” to placate Singh and bring him on board. The leadership feels it is too late in the day to replace Sukhu.

The Himachal Pradesh chief has survived with the support of Rahul Gandhi so far, though it is learnt that Sonia is not averse to changing him.

During the last Assembly elections, Singh had gotten the then HPCC chief Kaul Singh Thakur replaced. The latter had quit of his own accord in the party’s interest after Virbhadra similarly threatened to quit in case Thakur continues.

This time though, Sukhu is not inclined to step down, party insiders say.

Caught in a conundrum, Congress leaders say if Virbhadra remains adamant, the party is not left with much of a choice for viable alternatives in in election-bound Himachal.

Sukhu, when asked about factionalism, said he didn’t have issues with the chief minister and was working towards the party’s interests.

“I have no issue with anyone. I have no tussle with anybody. I am a loyal party worker and am working honestly among the people for strengthening the party,” he told PTI.

He said the responsibility and accountability of the organisation lies with him and he has worked towards that.

The chief minister however recently told a Congress legislature party meeting in Himachal Pradesh that he would not continue to be “humiliated” and go to the hustings “under” anyone’s charge.

The party is looking to avoid a repeat of the situation with its Gujarat state unit when its CLP leader Shankarsinh Vaghela quit just ahead of elections. Vaghela had been with the party for over two decades and was followed out of the exit by a few party MLAs.

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