The Telegraph
Since 1st March, 1999
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Singh inches closer to CM chair

New Delhi, March 3: The Congress high command is likely to pave the way for former chief minister Veerbhadra Singh to form the new government in Shimla.

The newly-elected Congress MLAs are scheduled to meet in the state capital tomorrow evening to elect their leader, who will subsequently meet Governor Suraj Bhan for ministry formation.

The practice, over the past five years, under Congress chief Sonia Gandhi has been that incumbent state party chiefs get the high command’s nod to head the government — as in Punjab, Assam and Karnataka. However, this may not be followed in the case of Himachal Pradesh.

Himachal Congress president Vidya Stokes met Sonia here today, ahead of tomorrow’s Congress legislature party meeting. AICC general secretary Mohsina Kidwai, one of the party’s central observers for the legislature party meeting, was also present. The other central observers are AICC treasurer Moti Lal Vora and R.K. Dhawan.

Vidya, a former Himachal Speaker, is a hot contender for the chief minister’s post. The central leadership is sympathetic to her claims and has not taken kindly to Veerbhadra’s not-so-covert attempts to defeat her in her Kumarsain constituency.

Singh’s support to a large number of rebel candidates against official party nominees has also not been missed by the high command.

The problem is that Veerbhadra commands majority support in the 40-member legislature party. An assessment by the central leadership says at least 22 of the new legislators are from his camp. Confident of his popularity in Himachal, the leader of the Congress legislature party in the dissolved Assembly had also sought to close the leadership issue in his favour at the campaign phase by exerting the high command to name the chief ministerial candidate.

Now, sure of majority support, Veerbhadra has asserted that the leadership issue will be decided in the legislature party and in Shimla. This seems to be his way of putting across to the high command his claim — vis-a-vis Vidya — for chief ministership.

Sonia is unlikely to push Vidya for the job in view of Veerbhadra’s muscle-flexing, said party sources. “The high command does not want a bitter and open wrangling for leadership so soon after the sweet victory over the BJP,” they said. Besides, a leadership tussle in Himachal would not be in the party's interests in the next round of Assembly elections in Rajasthan and Madhya Pradesh, they pointed out.

There are indications that the high command is working on a formula under which Veerbhadra will be the chief minister but will have to give “proper” representation in the government to Stoke’s followers and also some senior leaders who have been elected to the Assembly.

Sonia is understood to have discussed the outlines of such an arrangement with Stokes and the three central observers before their departure for the state capital. It was not clear immediately whether Vidya has given up her claim and is reconciled to Veerbhadra’s leadership. But insiders said “she has no choice except to go along with the high command. She does not have majority support in the legislature party”.

Emerging from their meeting with Sonia, Vidya and Mohsina told newspersons that the leadership and ministry formation issues were discussed. Vidya also said the legislature party would meet tomorrow but a decision on the leadership would be left to Sonia.

The legislature party might adopt a resolution authorising the party chief to name the leader. But that would just delay the likely naming of Veerbhadra for a while.

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