14-Month Wait, Then Strike: Himachal Royals Open New Front For Congress

As Sukhvinder Sukhu fights to save his government after dramatic developments during a Rajya Sabha election, the knives are out

14-Month Wait, Then Strike: Himachal Royals Open New Front For Congress

Sukhvinder Singh Sukhu is a known critic of former Chief Minister Virbhadra Singh


Virbhadra Singh, Congress's tallest leader in Himachal Pradesh and a six-time Chief Minister, died on July 8, 2021. But a year later, the dead leader was still the key face of the Congress in the state election. There were faultlines, of course. The Congress was helmed in Himachal Pradesh by Virbhadra Singh's wife Pratibha Singh, and the party's campaign committee was headed by Sukhvinder Singh Sukhu, a grassroots-level leader and a known critic of the late Chief Minister.

The Congress leadership, however, managed to project a united front and the party won 40 seats out of the 68 in the Assembly, ousting the incumbent BJP.

The bigger challenge, however, was waiting. Pratibha Singh was seen as a frontrunner for the top post, but the Congress decided to bet on Mr Sukhu. The mother-son duo of Pratibha Singh and Vikramaditya Singh swallowed defeat. Fourteen months on, as Mr Sukhu fights to save his government after dramatic developments during a Rajya Sabha election, the knives are out. The discontent packed away for another time has re-emerged, with Vikramaditya Singh resigning as minister and accusing Mr Sukhu of disrespecting his father despite the Congress winning the polls in his name.

The Royal Veteran

A member of the erstwhile royal family of Bushahr, Virbhadra Singh was fondly called "Raja Sahib". An alumnus of the prestigious Bishop Cotton School in Shimla and Delhi's St Stephen's College, he became a Lok Sabha MP for the first time in 1962. He would get elected to the Lower House of Parliament four more times. Following two stints as a central minister, he became Chief Minister for the first time in 1983. He would go on to occupy the post six times during his long political career. He lost the post in 2017 when the BJP won the state polls and Jairam Thakur took over as the Chief Minister.

Mr Singh's last years on the political landscape overlapped with Mr Sukhu's tenure as state Congress chief and there was no love lost between them. So much so that at one point, Mr Singh refused to share stage with Mr Sukhu. The leadership did manage a truce but the acrimony remained.

The Grassroots Leader

The political rise of Mr Sukhu was in stark contrast to that of Mr Singh. Coming from an ordinary family, he started out as an activist of the Congress's students wing, NSUI. He went on to serve as a councillor in Shimla municipal corporation before being elected to the Himachal assembly for the first time in 2003. A four-time MLA, he took over as state Congress chief in 2019, setting the stage for his rivalry with Virbhadra Singh.

Another key factor was that the Vibhadra Singh camp did not perform very well in the 2022 polls, depriving them of the political muscle required to clinch the Chief Minister post.

The Balancing Act

Before Mr Sukhu was named as the high command's Chief Minister choice, Pratibha Singh was seen to be the frontrunner for the top post. When the Congress decided otherwise, it tried a balancing act to prevent a mutiny. The state Congress president post stayed with Pratibha Singh and her son Vikramditya was given a minister's post. "We accept the decision taken by Congress high command," she said after the big announcement. Mr Sukhu ruled out any discontent in the Congress ranks following his selection.

A Well-Timed Strike

As the Congress struggled to recover from the Rajya Sabha election stunner pulled off by the BJP, the royals opened up another front. In a press conference this morning, Vikramaditya Singh accused the Sukhvinder Singh Sukhu government of disrespecting his father and ignoring the voices of MLAs in its 14-month rule. Vikramaditya Singh resigned as minister and said that the ball is in the Congress leadership's court. Congress' Jairam Ramesh has said that the leadership will not shy away from "difficult decisions". "Individuals are not important, it's the mandate that we have to respect. All options are open and the party is supreme. We will take whatever decision is required and soon," he said.