HIMACHAL Pradesh might be a tiny state on the national political landscape, but on December 8 it brought immense happiness and hope to the grand old party. Success in the Assembly elections has paved the way for the formation of a Congress government, a rarity these days; only two states (Rajasthan and Chhattisgarh) in the country are currently being ruled by the party.
The Congress cashed in on anti-incumbency as the BJP dispensation led by CM Jai Ram Thakur failed to live up to the expectations of the voters. The Congress’ triumph in Himachal Pradesh is special for another reason. The party rank and file is upbeat over the emergence of Priyanka Gandhi as a key campaigner, a vote-catcher and a leader worth looking up to, all rolled into one.
From day one, Priyanka took charge, coordinating with Chhattisgarh Chief Minister Bhupesh Baghel and other party leaders to micro-manage Himachal Pradesh. She also built one-on-one relations with Pratibha Singh, wife of former CM Virbhadra Singh, Mukesh Agnihotri, Sukhvinder Singh Sukhu and others at the regional level.
Throughout the campaign and the process of ticket distribution, she acted as arbiter and mediator, using her goodwill to ensure balance and conciliation. The Congress collectively stayed on course by raising issues such as the revival of the old pension scheme, flaws in the Agnipath scheme and the plight of apple growers.
The first signs of the Congress’ revival and the BJP’s vulnerability were visible a year ago when the former comprehensively won the Himachal byelections. The Congress had stunned the ruling party by bagging all three Assembly seats and the Mandi Lok Sabha seat, which was won by Pratibha Singh. Jai Ram Thakur had termed the bypoll defeat as a ‘timely alert’ for the ruling party but had hastened to add that the result should not be viewed as the ‘final assessment’ of his government’s performance.
The Congress’ success in Himachal Pradesh was in stark contrast to its poor show in Gujarat, where the absence of strong state-level leaders contributed to its rout. Priyanka could turn around the Himachal story due to the presence of Pratibha, Agnihotri, Sukhu and others who had an ear to the ground. In Gujarat, the big guns were missing and regional players such as Shaktisinh Gohil, Bharatsinh Madhavsinh Solanki, Siddharth Patel and Arjun Modhwadia were unable to lead from the front or campaign effectively against the BJP.
The choice of Chief Minister in Himachal is going to be crucial. Agnihotri was appointed Leader of the Opposition in the Assembly five years ago by Rahul Gandhi. As a relatively new face, the Congress has many advantages in picking Agnihotri, but supporters of Pratibha Singh point to Virbhadra Singh’s towering legacy. The six-time Chief Minister had passed away last year, leaving a major void in the state Congress.
Interestingly, there is an internal debate in progress on whether the Congress high command should push its own nominee as the Chief Minister or let the newly elected MLAs take a call.
Meanwhile, Priyanka seems to have learnt from past mistakes, particularly in Uttar Pradesh, where she had tried to shore up the party’s prospects without having a solid organisational base or state leadership. The Uttar Pradesh Assembly poll outcome was disastrous — the party won just two seats — even though Priyanka addressed 206 public meetings.
In Himachal Pradesh, she kept telling the stakeholders to stay united in order to wrest power from the BJP. Officially, there is no word about it, but the transition from Sonia and Rahul Gandhi to Priyanka Gandhi as the party’s chief campaigner is apparent. With Sonia and Rahul playing the roles of the party matriarch and ‘leader at large’, respectively, hands-on political management is now Priyanka’s domain. The AICC general secretary is expected to be constantly in the firefighting mode.
Mallikarjun Kharge, the recently elected All-India Congress Committee (AICC) chief, has already been asked to continue as the Leader of the Opposition in the Rajya Sabha, a post he had offered to give up, in keeping with the Congress’ ‘one-man, one-post’ norm. It remains to be seen how effectively Kharge can build on the party’s victory in Himachal and curb the Congress’ shrinking nationwide footprint.
Rahul, in effect, is all set to disengage more and more from electoral politics. He may undertake a leg of the Bharat Jodo Yatra from Assam to Gujarat, perhaps in the run-up to the Karnataka Assembly elections (due in May 2023). Rahul is said to be keen to keep raising matters of national importance with civil society and other stakeholders rather than confine himself to the Congress’ organisational activities.
The good news for the Congress is that it has Himachal-like robust setup and regional players in Karnataka, Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan and Chhattisgarh, where Assembly elections are due next year. Congress insiders are hopeful of a good show in these states as well in the run-up to the 2024 General Election. As of now, the Himachal victory will act as a balm for the beleaguered party that has suffered one debacle after another in the states this year — Punjab, Uttar Pradesh and now, Gujarat.
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