Congress veteran and six-time Chief Minister late Virbhadra Singh’s legacy will be put to test against BJP’s Chief Minister Jairam Thakur’s credibility during the parliamentary bypoll of Mandi, one of country’s toughest and sprawling constituencies.
The saffron party has pitted Brigadier Khushal Thakur (retired), a decorated officer who played a crucial role in the 1999 Kargil war, against Congress’ Pratibha Singh, a two-time MP from Mandi.
The seat — a prestige for Chief Minister Thakur as it falls in his home district — fell vacant with the death of two-time BJP MP Ram Swaroop Sharma, who defeated Congress candidate Ashray Sharma, the grandson of former Telecommunications Minister Sukh Ram in his electoral debut, with a record margin.
Eyeing sympathy votes, Pratibha Singh, who is banking largely on her first-time legislator son Vikramaditya Singh for campaigning, is seeking votes on development carried out by her husband during his three stints as an MP from Mandi and six terms as the Chief Minister.
Pratibha Singh, who lost the Mandi seat in the 2014 Lok Sabha elections, is missing no opportunity to remind the electorates that the victory in Mandi by-election “will be a tribute to him (Virbhadra Singh)”.
Hitting out at the Chief Minister in his Seraj Assembly constituency, she reminded the people that Virbhadra Singh had contributed a lot to the development of this area.
“I am saddened to see the poor condition of roads. It appears that BJP pays no attention towards the problem of the common man,” she said, adding the state needed ‘majboot’ (strong) Lok Sabha members, not ‘majboor’ (helpless) leaders.
Countering the Congress candidate, Chief Minister Thakur replied: “People want a ‘majboot’ candidate as their MP, not a ‘majboor’ candidate.”
“The Congress candidate says that she did not want to contest the election. If she was not keen, she should not contest it,” he said, while seeking votes for party candidate Brigadier Khushal Thakur, a Kargil War hero.
Facing criticism over his purported remark with Congress woman legislator Asha Kumari saying the women are stronger, not helpless, Chief Minister Thakur defended himself by saying he has high respect for the Congress candidate and for all women.
“Asha Kumari misconstrued my words,” Thakur told the media.
Even the Congress candidate has courted controversy by taking a jibe at her political rival by saying Kargil “was a small battle, not a full-scale war”, which the Chief Minister said “saddening”.
“Everybody knows about the valour of Brigadier Khushal Thakur. He fought the Kargil battle valiantly. It is saddening that Pratibha Singh described the battle with Pakistan a minor one,” said the Chief Minister, who misses no opportunity to remind the voters that the credit for popularising Mandi as Chotti Kashi went to the late MP. Even in the Prime Minister’s speeches had a mention of Chotti Kashi.
For the five-time legislator Thakur, development, welfare and no witch hunting are the mantras of success. He says his government is working without any vendetta and vengeance even towards the political opponents.
Pratibha Singh is hoping to make a comeback from the margins after she failed to retain the Mandi seat in the 2014 Lok Sabha polls.
She believes she has an edge owing to sympathy. She’s also banking on this month’s results in the Panchayati Raj Institutions elections in which the Congress-supported candidates did particularly well in the tribal-dominated areas that fall in the Mandi constituency.
The main contest in Mandi is between the BJP and the Congress.
Her husband, Virbhadra Singh, who devoted over 50 years for the common people despite being born in royalty, had travelled across the state, both as an MP and the Chief Minister.
The veteran leader passed away on July 8 in Shimla at the age of 87, leaving behind a rich political legacy.
Her husband was elected from Mandi in 1971, 1980 and 2009. However, Virbhadra Singh lost the Mandi seat in 1977. At the time of his death, he was representing the Arki Assembly seat that is going for bypoll along with two other Assembly seats — Fatehpur (in Kangra district) and Jubbal-Kotkhai (Shimla district) — on October 30.
However, BJP candidate Brigadier Thakur in his maiden contest is banking on his integrity and connect with voters.
The Mandi constituency, which includes Kullu, Mandi and some areas of Chamba and Shimla districts, besides the tribal-dominated Kinnaur and Lahaul and Spiti, is one of the biggest in the country.
(Vishal Gulati can be contacted at email@example.com)