It was only last week, that Virbhadra Singh was celebrating his 50 years in politics as well as his birthday with such fanfare at the Ice Skating Rink that it brought Shimla to a standstill. The five-time chief minister, three-time Union Minister, five-time MP and seven-time MLA, commands a mass following unparalleled by any other present political leader in the hill state of Himachal Pradesh, and second only to Dr Yashwant Parmar, the founder of the state.
With Assembly polls slated for this year end, the wily politician made sure the celebrations doubled up as a clear show of strength — 21 of the 23 Congress MLAs were present there. ‘Raja Sahib’, as he is popularly known, had even urged the Congress party a few days back to break away from its tradition and name the chief ministerial candidate before the polls, leaving no one in doubt about his aspirations for a sixth term as CM.
Now, the framing of corruption charges against him in a 23-year-old case by a Himachal court on June 25 threatens to take the wind out of his sails. Singh resigned as the Union Cabinet minister on June 26, claiming the whole episode reeked of political vendetta and vowed to get back at his rivals, namely, incumbent BJP chief minister Prem Kumar Dhumal.
The case dates back to 1989, when Singh, the then chief minister, and his wife Pratibha Singh, were caught on CD having an alleged conversation with IAS officer Mohinder Lal, discussing kickbacks from industrialists who wanted to invest in the state. Singh and his wife were booked in the case on August 3, 2009. Singh has alleged that Congress detractors played into chief minister Dhumal’s hands to bring him down.
Singh, a former royal and ruler of the erstwhile Rampur Bushair state in Kinnaur district, was handpicked by the late Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru to contest from the Mandi parliamentary seat in the 1962 elections. He was a post graduate student at that time at St. Stephen’s Delhi, studying history. Singh, didn’t look back from then and was elected as MP consistently for three terms. What has also helped is Singh being a Rajput, he enjoys a following among the Rajput community, which accounts for 40 per cent of the vote bank in the state.
This political stalwart has bounced back every time he met with adversity. In 1990, the Congress was wiped out in Himachal, winning only nine of the 68 seats, and Singh was sidelined (he wasn’t even the Congress Legislative Party leader). But when the Congress won the next polls in 1993, the tenacious politician got back the chief minister’s chair. This, despite Sukh Ram being PM Narasimha Rao’s clear choice for the chief minister’s post.
Singh then had a failed 13-day stint as CM in 1998, as he failed to come up with the numbers. However, when the Congress returned to power in 2003, the high command was eager to replace him, but Singh once again checkmated the party to become the chief minister.
For someone who entered state politics in April 1983, when late PM Indira Gandhi sent him to replace Ramlal Thakur as chief minister, his hold over the masses has been unwavering. A ‘people’s person’, he is known to be compassionate and has often been seen paying hospital bills for poor patients from his own pocket.
His stint as Union steel minister and then SME minister in UPA-II did not excite him much. He was eager to return to Himachal. His mammoth rallies across the state of late have led to increasing factionalism within the party, with the central leadership even stepping in to resolve the ongoing feud for supremacy with fellow Himachali and Union minister Anand Sharma.
The 78-year-old remains indefatigable. While the graft case might have dampened his chances for being CM and given additional ammunition to the opposition, it is clear the Congress party is going to the 2012 state polls with Singh in charge. As AICC in-charge of the state Birender Chaudhry says, “He is undoubtedly still the tallest leader in the state.” The party hopes to play the ‘victim card’ and is confident the graft charges will not impact its electoral fortunes.