Mandi, Feb. 22: Sukh Ram is selling a dream to voters in Mandi district, which includes his constituency Mandi town and nine other seats.
“Vote for the Himachal Vikas Congress (his breakaway Congress outfit) and I will give you the first chief minister from the district,” he appeals as the campaign for the February 26 polls reaches the do-or-die phase. The founder-president of the party does not fail to add that this will be his last poll battle.
This is not surprising. His party is no longer an untested force in its Himachal electoral politics and faces the prospect of being dismissed by the voters as a marginal player, a vote to which is a vote wasted. This is particularly the case with traditional Congress voters who sided with him in 1998.
The chief ministerial candidate is none other than Sukh Ram himself. He has a grievance and an argument to lure the voters. With 10 seats in the Assembly — the second largest after Kangra — Mandi district has a legitimate claim to chief ministership. The Congress always favoured a leader from the Shimla region. Mandi has been deprived of the honour of leading the state government.
The party’s permanent secretary Kundan Singh Thakur argues: “If with just 16 seats Mufti Mohammad Sayeed could become chief minister in neighbouring Jammu and Kashmir, why can’t the HVC repeat this in Himachal Pradesh with a lesser number of seats in a smaller state Assembly.” So, a vote for the HVC will count. Sukh Ram could be your chief minister, HVC supporters tell the voters.
Sukh Ram appears comfortably positioned in the four-cornered contest he is facing in the Mandi seat, considered his pocket borough for decades. But the waning appeal of his party could mean considerable erosion in the huge margin of victory he registered in 1998.
The Congress would like to give its candidate, D.D. Thakur, an erstwhile Sukh Ram protégé, a chance of throwing up a surprise due to the presence of a Dalit candidate in the fray, Narender Kaudal. Narender is the candidate of Him Loktantrik Morcha floated by former HVC minister Mahendra Singh, who has turned against Sukh Ram.
Elsewhere in the district, the HVC has fielded “stronger” candidates this time. “We are in the reckoning in as many as seven to eight seats,” said Sukh Ram’s son and party president Anil Sharma. In 1998, the party bagged four of the 10 seats. Mandi residents believe the party will be lucky to repeat its performance.
Sukh Ram fancies doing a Mufti after the elections. His supporters believe he can do it if the party can notch up a double-digit tally and force a hung Assembly. On paper, the party has fielded candidates in 50 seats. But Anil, also the lone HVC Rajya Sabha member, reveals the deeper electoral strategy. The HVC is concentrating on about 20 to 23 seats, where it has put up candidates with a strong local presence. Apart from the 10 in Mandi, these constituencies are in Kangra, Bilaspur, Una, Solan and Chamba districts.
Political pundits are of the view that these districts are witnessing a close fight between the BJP and the Congress.
The Congress, which did poorly last time, needs to put up a vastly improved show in these areas if it is to get a majority. The larger HVC game is to prevent a Congress recovery. It would naive to believe that Sukh Ram is not in league with the BJP. He has spent more time campaigning outside his district over the last 10 days, leaving his home turf for Anil to manage.
The HVC’s focus is on seats in which the Congress has a perceived advantage.
Significantly, the HVC is the only party that has fielded Muslim candidates. In Jawalamukhi and Banikhet seats in Kangra and Chamba districts, Gulzar Mohammad and Shaukat Ali are the HVC candidates. Insiders say the plan is to wean Muslim voters in the two constituencies from the Congress and, thus, help the BJP.
“In the absence of a wave, the strategy of fielding strong candidates to defeat the Congress candidates will work,” party insiders claim. Sukh Ram has particularly targeted the candidates who owe allegiance to Congress strongman and his bete noire, Virbhadra Singh. Obviously, they rule out any post-poll deal with Virbhadra. But they are keeping the option of joining hands with state Congress chief Vidya Stokes open if she is preferred to Virbhadra for the top post.
However, the HVC is seeking to help the BJP cause at the moment, notwithstanding their public spat. The spat would appear to be a conscious strategy to help Sukh Ram make inroads into the Congress vote base. HVC leaders think their strategy will work. But not many outside the party are so sure. The Congress is, however, making extra efforts to counter the HVC strategy with its leaders concentrating on these districts.