Virbhadra down but not out – Himachal poll an acid test ahead

Shimla: Former chief minister Virbhadra Singh’s long political career may have hit a wall following the graft charges filed against him and his exit from the, but Raja Saab, as he is popularly known in Himachal Pradesh, is determined to make it his winning card in this election year.

After being charged by a Shimla court in a corruption case, the five-time former chief minister Tuesday put in his papers as union minister for micro, small and medium enterprises.

The court verdict has, however, not stopped Virbhadra Singh in his tracks and he is once again ready to embark on strengthening the party in the state.

After submitting his resignation to Prime Minister Manmohan Singh in Delhi, Virbhadra Singh said: “Now I am ready to return to the state and to fight the battle on two fronts.”

“I will fight it out both at the grassroots (to strengthen my party ahead of the assembly elections) and in courts,” he added.

Special Judge B.L. Soni Monday framed corruption charges against Virbhadra Singh and his wife Pratibha Singh in connection with a 23-year-old case.

Political observers say the framing of corruption charges in an election year may have been a severe setback for Virbhadra Singh, who was almost marginalised in state politics after losing power in 2007, but politically he would emerge stronger.

Interestingly, two days before the court verdict his supporters virtually declared Virbhadra Singh to be the next chief minister with a show of strength at an informal public rally in Shimla.

The rally was organised to celebrate his 78th birthday and completion of his 50 years in politics.

At the rally, 21 out of the 23 Congress legislators, except state party chief Kaul Singh, who is also in race for chief minister, were present with a clear signal to the party high command to project Virbhadra Singh as the chief ministerial candidate.

“Still Virbhadra Singh has to fight a long legal battle. It’s almost impossible for him to come out clean (ahead of the elections due sometime in October). But the high command also knows that he is the tallest leader in the state,” a senior political leader said.

He said framing of charges has given a lever to his detractors within the party for the time being to gun for his scalp but the high command knows he is the only charismatic leader and doesn’t want to annoy him.

Party leaders said Virbhadra Singh’s exit from the union cabinet has brightened his future return to state politics.

“For the Congress party the criticism of Team Anna (on the issue of tainted cabinet ministers) is no issue. After tasting humiliating defeat in the Punjab polls and failure to get a clear majority in Uttarakhand, the party doesn’t want to lose elections in Himachal. They will keep Virbhadra Singh in good humour,” a party leader said.

“Now my battlefield is Himachal,” the former chief minister said. To make his presence felt, Virbhadra Singh has already held a series of rallies across the state.

At the rallies, where he got an overwhelming response, he has been critical of his own party leaders. He has been saying the state leaders have failed to take the Prem Kumar Dhumal government of the BJP head on. He even accused them of playing a “friendly match” with the BJP.

Interestingly, Leader of Opposition Vidya Stokes and Virbhadra Singh, who were believed to be arch rivals, have of late joined hands and been seen at political rallies together.

A segment of young legislators are not happy with the performance of Kaul Singh. They are demanding change of leadership in the state.

Former minister Harsh Mahajan said: “Raja Saab is the mass leader and the entire party is behind him. He has resigned without any pressure (of the high command) but he preferred to quit on moral grounds. People can’t be fooled by registering politically-motivated cases.”


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