“High Command To Pick” Himachal Chief Minister, Says Congress; 3 In Race

Pratibha Singh and Sukhvinder Singh Sukhu, two main claimants, after the MLAs’ meeting in Shimla

Shimla:

After a day of drama over who’ll be the chief minister, the 40 Congress MLAs in Himachal Pradesh on Friday evening passed the party’s traditional one-line resolution, authorising the “high command” to take a decision. The decision is expected by Sunday.

This leaves it mainly to Sonia Gandhi and Rahul Gandhi, besides Priyanka Gandhi who campaigned aggressively in Himachal along with new national president Mallikarjun Kharge.

The MLAs’ meeting was held with central overseers Rajeev Shukla, Bhupinder Hooda and Bhupesh Baghel present to coordinate. They spoke to each MLA to gauge who has more support.

“We will submit our report tomorrow to the central leadership, and they can choose whoever they want to,” said Mr Shukla after the meet. He insisted there’s no infighting.

The resolution, however, came after a show of strength by supporters of state Congress chief Pratibha Singh ahead of the meeting in Shimla, her family’s area of dominance. A horde of party workers raised slogans and even blocked Chhattisgarh Chief Minister Bhupesh Baghel’s car, demanding that Pratibha Singh, a three-time MP and wife of the late leader Virbhadra Singh, an ex-royal, “deserves the top post”.

In the race besides her are Sukhvinder Singh Sukhu and Mukesh Agnihotri, both of whom have their pockets of support in areas some distance away from Shimla. Since the meeting today was in Shimla, the support for Pratibha Singh grabbed the optics.

Mindful of the optics, the party had all three seated next to Mr Shukla at the media interaction.

Mr Shukla said MLAs were welcomed at the meeting by Pratibha Singh; the resolution presented by Mr Agnihotri and seconded by Mr Sukhu, and the MLAs raised hands to pass it by consensus.

Contenders: Royalty, loyalty, seniority at play

Dark horses such as Harshwardhan Chauhan are seen to be in the race, too, but for now three factions are the story.

Sukhvinder Singh Sukhu, long-time MLA from Nadaun in Hamirpur district, has risen through the ranks from the Congress wing National Student Union of India (NSUI).

He did say, at least on camera today, that he’s not a claimant. But he made a more characteristically straight remark to Outlook during the campaign: “Yes, definitely, I too have aspirations to be Chief Minister.” In that interview, he had said that factionalism in Congress “died with Virbhadra Singh’s death”.

Though from another district in another region of the state, he won the municipal election twice in Shimla, and was made secretary of the state unit in 2008, eventually getting to the top of the state unit.

He was replaced as state unit chief in 2019 by Kuldeep Rathore, reportedly in a compromise against factionalism.

Early this year, just months after Virbhadra Singh’s death, his wife was made state unit chief — a move attributed to ensuring sympathy vote doesn’t fritter away.

Pratibha Singh has referred to that sympathy repeatedly while making a play for the top post. She draws her power and stature from the legacy of Virbhadra Singh, the royal scion of Rampur-Bushahr near Shimla who was chief minister six times.

Supporters cite an emotional connect with the “Rani”, arguing that “votes were sought in Raja saheb’s name”. She and her son, two-time MLA Vikramaditya Singh, have also made this point while angling for her to get the chair.

As for Mukesh Agnihotri, Leader of Opposition during the now-voted-out BJP government, he has won his fifth assembly election since moving from journalism to politics around two decades ago.

But he has not said anything on the race yet.

Mr Agnihotri is considered a protege of the “royal family”, particularly Virbhadra Singh, but has gradually grown to having his own ambitions.

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