After winning Himachal Pradesh, the Congress has called a meeting of its MLAs today to tackle its next challenge – deciding on a Chief Minister. It won’t be easy; the Congress has at least four candidates to choose from.
The meeting will take place at Radisson hotel in Shimla at 3 pm.
The frontrunner is Congress’s Himachal Pradesh chief Pratibha Singh, the wife of Virbhadra Singh who was the Congress’s tallest leader in the hill state until his death last year.
Pratibha Singh is a Lok Sabha MP from Mandi and belongs to a former royal family. She did not contest the election but effectively led the Congress campaign. She claims the support of Congress MLAs who were loyal to her husband Virbhadra Singh, who led the party for over three decades in Himachal Pradesh.
Her son Vikramaditya Singh, who contested the election and won from Shimla rural, told NDTV yesterday: “As a son, I want Pratibha ji to get a big responsibility. Besides being a son, I am also a responsible leader of the party. We will respect whatever the party decides. I am sure the party will take into account what the people want.”
He added: “We have to walk the path shown by Virbhadra ji. The government will work on the ‘Virbhadra Singh vikas model’. He must be smiling today in heaven.”
There are three other contenders besides her – former state chief Sukhwinder Singh Sukhu, Mukesh Agnihotri, the leader of the Congress legislature party in the outgoing assembly, and Harshwardhan Chauhan – which is why the party feared BJP’s “Operation Lotus”, code for Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s party getting MLAs to switch loyalties to topple opposition governments.
Mukesh Agnihotri believes he deserves the top job for putting across the party’s position strongly in the state assembly.
There are other names in the mix. Former state Congress chief Kuldeep Singh Rathore claims he brought the deeply divided party together in the last few years.
Mr Rathore was replaced as chief by Pratibha Singh just a few months ago.
Several Congress leaders are said to have contested the election in the hope that they would be picked as Chief Minister. They even used this while campaigning in their constituencies.
The multitude of “Chief Ministers” in the Congress had been derided by BJP leaders like Union Home Minister Amit Shah.
Amid Congress worries of the race getting bitter, leaders had considered ringfencing the newly elected MLAs by moving them to Chandigarh or Raipur. That plan has been shelved after the party won a clear majority.
The Congress has won 40 of 68 seats, five above the majority mark, and the BJP took 25. For now, the Congress believes the BJP’s poaching attempts will not succeed.
Rajeev Shukla, the Congress in-charge of Himachal, Chhattisgarh Chief Minister Bhupesh Baghel and senior leader Bhupinder Hooda will attend the meeting in Shimla.
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