Chandigarh: The story of the 58-year-old newly appointed Himachal Pradesh chief minister, Sukhwinder Singh Sukhu, is not only one of someone who started from humble beginnings and then rose to the top of the political ladder.
But before going into the other side of his story, it is important to note that it is no doubt a rarity in Indian politics for a driver’s son to become the chief minister of a state; several of his predecessors came from more privileged backgrounds. For instance, Congress’s six-time chief minister and Sukhu’s bête noire, the late Virbhadra Singh, was from a royal family in the upper Himachal region.
On the contrary, Sukhu’s father Rasil Singh was a driver in the Himachal Roadways and bore the responsibility of providing for four children. His family stills lives an ordinary life in his home town, Nadaun in Hamirpur district, from where he was first elected MLA in 2003 and re-elected in 2007, 2017 and now 2022.
But his humble upbringing is not the only thing that defines him. And he has never used it as a strategic tool in his political life.
Sukhu grew organically as a politician, starting his political journey as youth leader in the Congress’s student wing, the National Student Union of India (NSUI), in the 1980s. Later, he was president of the Youth Congress for nearly a decade.
A law graduate from Himachal University, he made his debut in electoral politics as a councillor in the Shimla municipal body in 1992 – a post he held till 2002, before entering the Himachal Pradesh Vidhan Sabha in 2003.
According to those close to him, Sukhu’s political ascent is a result of his astuteness and perseverance.
Sukhu entered the state assembly at a time when the Congress was dominated by Virbhadra. Sukhu chose his home town in Hamirpur as his karmabhoomi, knowing fully well that this was also the home turf of another veteran in Himachal politics – two-time former BJP chief minister Prem Kumar Dhumal.
The fact that Sukhu has been a fighter through his political journey and survived the onslaught of both these big leaders is a feat in itself.
Professor Ramesh Chauhan, a political analyst, told The Wire that the fact that Sukhu was an organisational man and committed party worker helped him grow within the party and outside.
Chauhan said Virbhadra was ruthless when it came to his opponent. Even though he was a mass leader, Virbhadra did not allow others to grow around him. The list of those he quashed along the way is long.
According to Chauhan, the major reason for Sukhu’s survival was that he remained in the good books of the anti-Virbhadra camp and even of the central party leadership.
Chauhan said Virbhadra’s tug-of-war with the central leadership is very well known; he hardly followed their diktats. This helped Sukhu stay the course in state politics.
Even though he lost his seat in the 2012 state election, the Gandhi family made Sukhu the state party president a year later despite stiff opposition from Virbhadra, he added. This move, Chauhan believes, was to keep Virbhadra in check – but in turn gave Sukhu an opportunity to grow within the party.
Sukhu’s stint as party president was crucial
Six years as Himachal Congress president – between 2013 and 2019 – allowed Sukhu to firm up his grip within the party cadres and also develop a strong support base among the people. More than using a confrontational style of politics or showing a temptation to stay in the limelight, he kept his narrative issue based.
Even though Virbhadra replaced him in 2019 with his own loyalist, Sukhu remained prominent. After Virbhadra’s death, his widow Pratibha Singh was made the party president – but the fact that Sukhu was made president of the election committee before the assembly polls, and many of his loyalists were allotted tickets, speaks volumes.
After the 2022 assembly election verdict this week, there was drama in the state. Pratibha’s supporters carried out protests when they heard she may not be picked for the chief ministerial position. This triggered speculation of rifts within the party. However, the fact that Sukhu had more MLAs supporting him made it easy for the Gandhi family to choose him to be the chief minister.
Sukhu’s loyalty to the Gandhi family was a factor in his elevation. But his background as an organisational man, who often had one ear in the party and one in the public, worked more in his favour – in addition to his clean image as a politician.
His being a Rajput also served the party well. All chief ministers in Himachal – except one exception, Shanta Kumar, a Brahmin leader – came from the Rajput community, which is electorally strong in the state. This tradition is continuing with Sukhu as well.
His elevation as chief minister, the party believed, would also keep in check the rival camp. He comes from Hamirpur district, from where Anurag Thakur – Dhumal’s son and a cabinet minister in the Modi government at the Centre – is the MP.
The Congress now expects Sukhu to deliver results in the 2024 general election. In 2019, the Congress lost all four parliamentary seats in Himachal to the BJP.
Challenges are numerous for Sukhu as the chief minister. He will have to fulfil the tall promises the Congress made in the run up to the election – the toughest being the introduction of an old age pension scheme and growing the apple belt.
Then, he has to keep the late Virbhadra Singh-Pratibha Singh camp in good humour. The elevation of Mukesh Agnihotri, a close aide of Virbhadra Singh, as deputy chief minister is a power-sharing compromise between Sukhu and Pratibha.
All eyes will now be on the cabinet formation and portfolios. The party can’t ignore the handsome representation of the Kangra district and Shimla district – 17 of its 40 MLAs come from these regions.