New Delhi: All through the Himachal Pradesh assembly elections, the Congress showed great respect for the legacy of its former six-time chief minister, the late Virbhadra Singh. It not only made his widow, Pratibha Singh, the state unit chief before the polls, but also gave a ticket to his son, Vikramaditya Singh. However, after the elections which the party won handsomely, by bagging 40 of the state’s 68 seats, the party did not accede what Pratibha and her followers wanted – that she be made the chief minister.
It chose instead self-made politician and former state Congress president Sukhwinder Singh Sukhu, who won the election from Nadaun. Sukhu is considered a close confidante of the Gandhi family, especially Rahul Gandhi. The party, however, accommodated a loyalist of the Virbhadra Singh family, Mukesh Agnihotri, as the deputy chief minister.
Though the Congress did not spell out the reasons for selecting Sukhu over Pratibha, one major factor appears to have been that she is also a Member of Parliament from the Mandi Lok Sabha constituency, and had only won the seat in a by-election following her husband’s demise last year.
A look at the history of the Mandi seat reveals that it has often changed hands between the Congress and the BJP. In such a scenario, the Congress high command, which took the decision on making Sukhu the next chief minister, would not have wanted another by-election to this Lok Sabha seat so soon.
Pratibha was no Virbhadra when it came to political battles
Also, despite riding a strong sympathy wave following “Raja Sahab” Virbhadra’s demise, Pratibha only managed to win by a small margin of 8,766 votes in 2021. Though she had also won the seat in 2009 and 2013, that was in the time when the Congress was ruling at the Centre and Narendra Modi was not at the helm of the BJP.
In 2014, Ram Swaroop Sharma of the BJP had defeated Pratibha by 39,856 votes. In 2019, Sharma had retained the seat, this time by defeating Aashray Sharma of the Congress by over four lakh votes. The saffron party had swept all four Lok Sabha seats in Himachal Pradesh – Mandi, Kangra, Hamirpur and Shimla (SC) – in both the 2014 and 2019 elections
If the Congress had backed Pratibha’s candidature as the chief minister, it would had to face another by-election to the Mandi Lok Sabha seat within a short period of time. Since the outcome would not have made any impact on the continuation of government at the Centre, the Congress probably did not want another contest in the state; an adverse outcome would have taken the sheen away from the win in the assembly polls.
BJP won 12 assembly seats, Congress only five in Mandi
This aspect would have weighed on the minds of the Congress leaders particularly because the party did not fare well in the Mandi Lok Sabha region in the assembly elections.
In 17 assembly seats falling in Mandi Lok Sabha constituency, the BJP won 12 while the Congress bagged only five. Considering the overall average drawn from the 40 seats it won, the Congress should have ideally bagged at least 10 in Mandi. But the party’s tally in Pratibha’s Lok Sabha seat fell far short of that.
The seats which the Congress won were Kinnaur, Lahaul and Spiti, Manali, Kullu and Rampur. The saffron party won all the others – Bharmour, Banjar, Anni, Karsog, Sundernagar, Nachan, Seraj, Darang, Jogindernagar, Mandi, Balh and Sarkaghat.
BJP polled over 87,000 votes more than Congress in Pratibha’s constituency
Another aspect of this result from Mandi which may have helped the Congress high command take a quick decision on its next chief minister could have been the fact that while across the state the Congress polled more votes than the BJP, in the 17 assembly segments falling under the Mandi Lok Sabha seat it polled fewer than the BJP. In fact, BJP’s margin of lead in these seats was nearly 10 times more than the margin by which Pratibha had won her election in 2019.
While the BJP polled a total of 4,94,019 votes in the 17 assembly seats, the Congress tally stood at 4,06,934 votes. So the BJP had got 87,085 votes more than the Congress in the assembly seats falling in the Mandi Lok Sabha region. And it would have been difficult for the Congress to cover this gap in a by-election.