Home / Politics / Policy /  Virbhadra Singh: The Raja readies for his last battle

New Delhi: Infighting, corruption, incumbency—if one were to count all the factors that could go against one of India’s longest serving chief ministers, it would seem Virbhadra Singh’s political career is all but over. But the senior Congress leader, who leads the Congress government in Himachal Pradesh, is convinced that he has one last fight left in him: the 2017 assembly election.

Singh has announced that this will be his last election, but whether it will be a memorable one for him remains to be seen. The state goes to polls on 9 November. Singh will be contesting from Arki this time instead of Shimla-Rural, his earlier constituency. He has vacated that seat in favour of his son Vikramaditya Singh.

A scion of the Rampur-Bushahr royal family, Singh, often addressed as Raja Sahib, is part of the older generation of the Congress party, not just in the state but across the country. He began his political career with the Lok Sabha elections in 1962. He went onto serve as a member of Parliament for four more terms, though not successive, in 1967, 1971, 1980 and 2009. His first stint as chief minister of the state was in 1983 and lasted till 1990 when he was succeeded by Shanta Kumar of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). In fact, save for a brief period of President’s Rule (between 1992 and 1993) Himachal Pradesh has alternated between the Congress and the BJP since 1983. This is Singh’s sixth term as chief minister.

An active politician for more than five decades, Singh has survived nearly every curve ball thrown his way, including corruption charges (which he is still fighting) and waning influence within the party. In fact, Singh has had to fight off threats from younger leaders, particularly state Congress chief Sukhvinder Singh Sukhu, ahead of the election. At one point, things had deteriorated to such an extent that Singh declared he won’t be contesting this year. Sukhu had replaced Singh as the party chief five years ago and Singh has been upset since. There was a tussle over the post of party campaign committee chief and eventually Singh prevailed.

While Sukhu continues to hold the post, the party’s decision to name Singh as the chief ministerial candidate has gone a long way in soothing the ego of the senior leader. “Even at the age of 83, he manages to give over 18 hours a day to public work. In the run-up to election, he is even leading the party’s campaign and addresses more than two public meetings in a day," said a Himachal Pradesh-based Congress politician, describing Singh’s working style.

However, there are some in the party who say that Singh has actively discouraged the rise of a second generation of leaders in the state. Singh addressed this charge in a September 2017 interview to The Statesman in which he said, “I have not stopped anyone from emerging a leader. I came with my own efforts. Nobody built me up. Any aspirant, who wants to come to the fore, will have to…make himself capable of leadership." His son now heads the Himachal Pradesh Youth Congress.

In 2012, the Congress had won 36 out of the 68 seats in the Himachal assembly. This year, in an interview to Hindustan Times, Singh acknowledged that the party is fighting a tough battle but was confident of victory. But words come easy especially when corruption charges against Singh are being dredged up by the BJP on a daily basis. In his campaign, BJP president Amit Shah has come out all guns blazing against Singh, describing him as a non-performer and an example of corruption. Singh, on his part, has maintained that the charges against him are trumped up and politically motivated.

The BJP’s vision document for the upcoming polls promises women’s safety, employment, development and tackling corruption and illegal activities. Singh, on his part, has been talking about development and employment too. Now it remains to be seen whether the Raja will triumph in his final battle at the hustings or whether the BJP will checkmate him.

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