Former president of Himachal Pradesh Congress Committee Sukhvinder Singh Sukhu, 56, was recently appointed the chairperson of the party’s state campaign committee. In New Delhi to meet central leaders ahead of the “Chintan Shivir” in Udaipur that began on Friday, Sukhu discussed a wide range of issues with The Indian Express, from the elevation of former adversary Virbhadra Singh’s wife Pratibha Singh as state Congress chief to the factionalism in the Pradesh Congress Committee (PCC). Himachal Pradesh goes to polls later this year.
Normally, campaign committee chairpersons are projected as chief ministerial candidates. In your case, the Congress is a little hesitant to declare you as the CM face.
At a rally in Mandi in 2017, Rahul Gandhi declared Virbhadra Singh as the CM candidate. Had everything gone right, Virbhadra would have become the CM for the seventh time. But that was not to be as the Congress did not win. So, announcing the CM face before voting doesn’t always help. First, our MLAs have to get elected and we have to get the requisite numbers. Only after that, this question should be — and will be — addressed. Secondly, it is after 40 years that someone other than Virbhadra Singh has become the chairman of the campaign committee. He used to hold this post, become the CM candidate and eventually the CM as well. This time, we decided to fight elections under collective leadership. Every leader has been assigned responsibilities. Everyone has been told to work hard and win the election. As for the CM candidate, we will cross that bridge when we come to it.
But aren’t you in the race to be the CM?
See, I have given 40 years to the party, from the grassroots to the campaign committee. I entered student politics at the age of 17 years. I have been the longest-serving NSUI (National Students’ Union of India) state head — six years — the longest-serving Youth Congress state chief — 10 years — and the longest-serving PCC president — six years. Also, I have been a councillor of the Shimla Municipal Corporation for 10 years. So, what the winning MLAs and the high command will tell me to do, I’ll do that as a true soldier of the party.
Your PCC president tenure was marked by an acrimonious relationship with the then CM Virbhadra Singh.
I am committed to the party ideology. It was all issue-based. There were issues on which I supported him and there were issues on which I opposed him.
Now that his wife Pratibha Singh is the PCC president, will the old bitterness come into play?
I pay due regard to the post of PCC president. We will fight the elections unitedly.
It is said that Virbhadra ensured there was no second line of leadership in the party. If he didn’t like a PCC president, he got him shifted. What made you hold your ground against him?
Undoubtedly, integrity, fearlessness, courage, truthfulness, lack of greediness, and political IQ.
The idea of the recent reshuffle in the PCC was floated last year and you were said to be behind it.
No, no. I underwent surgery for a tumour in the abdomen in the first week of December. I was in Delhi. Out of our 18 MLAs at the time, 11 came to enquire after me. Five of them were Virbhadra loyalists. They also met the high command and pushed my name for an important role in the elections.
The BJP alleges there are too many factions in the Congress.
After the demise of Virbhadra Singh, 90 per cent of the state Congress unit is united. Only 10 per cent speak in different voices, which is a healthy sign of intra-party democracy.
Will the Congress be able to take advantage of anti-incumbency against the Jai Ram Thakur government?
Not only anti-incumbency, we will also take advantage of the non-performance of this government, their links with the (drug and sand mining) mafias, and their failure to generate employment and contain inflation. We will win in a big way.
What do you make of the AAP’s entry into Himachal Pradesh?
The Congress has protected democracy for the last 75 years. Every party has a right to fight elections from wherever they want to. If the AAP has decided to contest elections in our state, they are most welcome to do so. But the electoral history of the state needs to be kept in mind. It has always been a contest between two parties — the Congress and the BJP. There is another significant fact. Six or seven months before every Assembly election, there always emerges a third party or third morcha, be it the late Sukh Ram’s outfit or Maheshwar Singh’s outfit or the BSP (Bahujan Samaj Party) or the LJP (Lok Janshakti Party), but without much electoral gain. So, the AAP has a long way to go in the hill state. They need to work hard.
Recently, Khalistani flags sprang up in Himachal Pradesh …
These are diversionary tactics (of the government). If there is any such threat, the law should take its course.