Himachal elections: Will BJP’s gambit of inducting Sukh Ram, son into party pay off?
New Delhi: In the second week of October, Anil Sharma, a cabinet minister in Himachal Pradesh’s Congress government, quit his post and said he would be joining the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). Switching sides ahead of elections is routine in Indian politics, but Sharma’s departure was notable not just because of his cabinet position, but also because his father is former Union minister and veteran Himachal politician Sukh Ram.
Sukh Ram, 90, often referred to as the strongman of Mandi, has a very strong hold on the constituency, having represented it thrice in the Lok Sabha (1984, 1991 and 1996) and five times in the Himachal assembly. “Sukh Ram is Mandi and Mandi is Sukh Ram,” said Vinod Sharma, a resident of Mandi. Sukh Ram too has moved to the BJP along with his son.
Anil Sharma, himself a three-time member of the legislative assembly (MLA) from Mandi (he won the seat in 1993, 2007 and 2012), was minister of rural development in chief minister Virbhadra Singh’s government. He also served as a minister in the Virbhadra Singh cabinet from 1993 to 1996.
Sharma justified his decision to quit the Congress and join the BJP on grounds that he and his father had been constantly sidelined by Virbhadra Singh.
When Singh formed the government in 2012, Sharma’s name was not included in the initial list of cabinet ministers. It was only later, after his father put his foot down, that Sharma was inducted. Matters came to a head when neither Sharma nor his father were asked to attend the Congress rally in their constituency, which was being headlined by party vice -president Rahul Gandhi. It was at this rally, on 9 October, that Gandhi named Virbhadra Singh the party’s chief ministerial candidate in the 9 November assembly elections.
The Congress, on its part, has taken the defections in its stride. Virbhadra Singh told the media that the father-son duo’s move to the BJP will not affect the Congress’s election prospects.
But Sharma, in his rallies, has been insisting that only the lotus (the BJP’s symbol) will now bloom in Mandi. In an interview to The Indian Express last month, Sharma said, “We have our own base in Mandi. When we floated Himachal Vikas Congress (in 1997), the security deposit of both Congress and BJP were forfeited.”
But is he being too confident? R.D. Santoshi, who runs a grocery store in Majhwad village in Mandi, thinks so. “People are confused now. Anil Sharma has switched from the Congress to the BJP so close to the elections. The move seems to suggest that he has no principles. There is a sense of betrayal among the voters here (in Mandi). The family has a very strong presence here and has won elections for many years. But this time we will think about whom to vote for.”
Sukh Ram has had his share of controversy. In 1996, he was arrested in connection with a telecom scam. Raids by the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) at his house yielded Rs2.45 crore in cash in Delhi and Rs1.16 crore in Mandi. Properties were seized separately. The amounts may not seem big in this day and age, but in 1996 they were akin to a king’s ransom. Sukh Ram was eventually found guilty of misusing his post as telecom minister to award contracts to a private firm. The raids led Sukh Ram to resign from his post in 1996 and eventually to his expulsion from the Congress.
In 1997, Sukh Ram and his son formed the Himachal Vikas Congress and entered into a post-poll alliance with the BJP. In 2004, Sukh Ram rejoined the Congress.
The BJP’s decision to join hands with Sukh Ram is interesting given the hardline stand it has taken against corruption. Clearly, all is fair in electoral politics. Now, it remains to be seen whether the gambit of inducting Sharma and his father in the party will pay off for the party. In Thursday’s election, Sharma faces Champa Thakur, the daughter of Congress leader Kaul Singh Thakur.