Himachal Pradesh, the state renowned for its apples, will be poll-bound later this year. Congress led by Pratibha Singh is looking to capitalise on anti-incumbency waves against current BJP government and legacy of former CM Virbhadra Singh, who died last year.
Pratibha Singh has been at the fore of the grand old party’s electoral campaign in Himachal Pradesh. She has been trying to fill in the big shoes of Raja Sahib, which has been an uphill task for the State Congress Head.
Who is Pratibha Singh?
Pratibha Singh was born on 16 June, 1956 in Shimla in the royal family of Keonthal.
Her name shot to headlines for the first time in 1985 after her marriage with the then Himachal Pradesh CM Virbhadra Singh, the royalty from the Bushahr state.
It would have been unusual if Pratibha Singh had remained aloof from politics despite being a royal and wife of a top politician in the Himalayan state.
Entry into Politics
In 2004, Pratibha Singh gained a seat in the Lok Sabha after she defeated BJP candidate Maheshwar Singh from Mandi.
In 2013, she defeated the current Himachal Pradesh CM Jai Ram Thakur in LS by-poll elections — by a margin of 1.36 lakh votes. Though she was unable to defend her seat amid the Modi wave in the 2014 general elections.
In the 2021 LS bypolls, she once again clinched victory after defeating Brigadier Khushal Singh Thakur, the Kargil war hero.
This victory was attributed to the sentiment wave after the demise of Virbhadra Singh, who was a popular leader.
Throughout her political career, she has been branded ‘Wife of the Chief Minister’, a stamp which might not be easy to remove or rather on the contrary as the recent political campaign may suggest.
For the first time, she has been put to test — in absence of Virbhadra Singh — as she leads Congress in Himachal Pradesh.
Pratibha Singh — The State Congress Head
The late Virbhadra Singh was a political stalwart in the state with experience and support from the masses. After his demise, the Congress in the state suffered a political vacuum.
The widower of the former CM and Loksabha member Pratibha Singh was appointed as the State Congress Committee Chief in April, this year.
The decision to promote her came a year after she won the by-poll election from the Mandi Lok Sabha constituency though several other key factors came into play too.
Legacy of Virbhadra Singh
The biggest factor for the grand old party in the Himachal Pradesh elections will be the legacy of Virbhadra Singh.
The legacy of the former CM was the primary reason for Congress winning all 4 bypolls last year.
Virbhadra Singh, or popularly known as Raja Sahib was the party’s pillar in the state. He was elected 9 times as the MLA for Congress in Himachal Pradesh’s legislative assembly and served a record 6 terms as the Chief Minister of the state.
Pratibha Singh herself claimed in an interview, “masses do not recognise anyone other than Virbhadra Singh in posters of Congress.”
The basic idea for Pratibha Singh’s political promotion was to embark upon the public sentiments over her husband’s demise — a move which has been frequently deployed by the grand old party.
More than the party, Pratibha Singh wants to project Virbhadra Singh’s legacy through herself in her work and politics. On multiple occasions, she has clearly emphasised that Congress is fighting the state elections with his legacy on the forefront.
The move is supposed to evoke nostalgic feelings from the masses as the former CM was highly loved and venerated among them.
Targeting The Women Vote
In the 2017 Himachal Pradesh legislative elections, women voters turned out more than men.
According to a report, “19,10,582 female voters exercised their franchise against 18,11,061 male voters”.
Even in the 2014 general elections, women votes were significant, particularly in regions of Kangra and Hamirpur constituencies as females outnumbered males in voter turnout.
A woman-face by Congress in form of Pratibha Singh in the state will surely impact the vote mathematics.
Counter to Jai Ram Thakur
In what could be considered a psychological tactic — the Pratibha Singh tag can also be affixed as ‘tried and tested’ against current Himachal Pradesh CM Jai Ram Thakur.
Interestingly, back in 2013, Pratibha Singh defeated the current Chief Minister to win the general bypolls.
The 5-times MLA Jai Ram Thakur was roped in as Chief Minister after BJP’s chief ministerial candidate Prem Kumar Dhumal lost from his seat. It has not been easy for BJP in the state, be it the corruption allegations, governance issues or protests.
Congress believes Pratibha Singh — reinforced with Virbhadra Singh’s legacy — will triumph if pitted against Jai Ram Thakur.
Though it has not been a cakewalk as the new Himachal Pradesh Congress Chief has faced several problems for quite some time now.
Factionalism has always been the bane of the Congress unit in Himachal Pradesh, even in Virbhadra Singh’s era.
The death of the former CM and then subsequent demise of G.S. Bali, a veteran Congress leader, led to a string of power-struggle.
The current scenario sees 3 factions in the party, with Sukhwinder Sukhu — current chairman of the Election Campaign Committee and Mukhesh Agnihori — Leader of the Opposition and Pratibha Singh along with loyalists of former Virbhadra Singh faction.
The appointment of Pratibha Singh as leader of the State Congress Committee though surprising, was a calculated one from the Central high command. It was a move to unite the party — at least till the State elections later this year.
Though, she has failed to achieve that as many leaders and big names have either left the party or resigned from important roles.
Recently several big names have left the party such as former state cabinet minister Harsh Mahajan. The leader had said during his joining in BJP, “I am at the helm of affairs there. What I’ve noticed is that a section of leaders are doing sales of tickets and party posts”.
Senior INC leader Anand Sharma had jolted the party in August this year after he resigned from the state steering committee. The leader had cited disrespect meted out to him after not being invited to key party meetings for electoral strategies.
On a question about Anand Sharma, the state congress chief said in an interview, “He is a tall leader. We can’t trouble him for small meetings. We can’t make him travel to every street and bylane. When there’s something big enough, we’ll call him and he will come”.
Though strangled by problems, she has still made her views crystal clear.
Thumbs down to Congress High command
Pratibha Singh was again in the headlines last month after she accused ‘Central Congress leaders of neglecting senior leaders’ in an interview.
She stated, “senior leaders want attention and someone who can listen to their grievances but they [the younger lot] don’t give attention to such leaders”.
“This generation gap was addressed by Indiraji, Rajivji and Soniaji during their time but the new generation doesn’t have the patience and maturity to bridge the gap”, she added.
She also advised Rahul Gandhi to learn these political maneuvers (reaching out to senior leaders) and the party would have been in a much better condition if he had listened to them.
Later, she made a U-turn and claimed that the news outlet twisted her statements.
The drift between the central leadership and Pratibha Singh was reported to widen after a few of her loyalists were denied tickets
Congress in the state is also plagued by ineffective electoral campaigning by the central leadership in comparison to other parties.
The star campaigners of Congress have been largely absent from the poll-bound state whereas PM Narendra Modi has himself pitched in to kickstart BJP’s campaign. Though this problem can be attributed to the already stinking leadership fault in the Congress party at a national level.
If we compare it with political scenarios from other states, one would understand how BJP leaders, both local and national have been mild in their attacks on the new Congress State Chief, ever since she took charge.
Pratibha Singh — coming from a royal background — is a perfect target of BJP’s Kaamdaar versus Naamdaar narrative but so far they have avoided such personal attacks. It is a well-known fact that the late former CM Virbhadra Singh was respected, even by the BJP leaders for his indomitable spirit. It was a charisma of Late Virbhadra Singh that he managed to keep Congress rank and file intact even when North Western hill regions were getting swept by Modi Tsunami.
This might in other words also suggest that BJP does not want to go against the legacy of Virbhadra Singh or Pratibha Singh — just like the Jayant Chaudhary case in recent Uttar Pradesh Assembly Elections.
Moreover, on many occasions, BJP leaders have endorsed statements of Pratibha Singh to target opportunism and faulty leadership of the Congress.
It has been already cleared by Pratibha Singh of her not contesting the elections but even still a huge task remains of upholding the legacy of Virbhadra Singh.
Though she is respected among the people of Himachal Pradesh as Rani Sahiba, the feelings are not mutually shared by fractioned Congress party in the state. Leaders such as Sukhwinder Sukkhu and Mahesh Agnihotri still view her as a potential power-sharer in state politics.
A Congress victory might turn around everything for the troubled party — even bolstering hopes at the national level and it might even present a fresh face in the form of Pratibha Singh.
Though the unforeseen dreams could be dashed as well, just as Uttarakhand legislative elections this year, where the infighting amid the Congress party and better political management by BJP denied a comeback for the grand old party.