In politics, you sometimes owe your success to your opponent. The Congress returned to power in Himachal Pradesh on a strong negative vote against the Bharatiya Janata Party government of Prem Kumar Dhumal. Other than wait out the last five years, the party had done little to inspire confidence as an alternative. But the Dhumal government’s non-governance appears to have been enough for the Congress to win a comfortable majority in the Assembly election. From 1990, electors in Himachal Pradesh have voted out the incumbent in each election, replacing the BJP with the Congress and the Congress with the BJP. 2012 happens to be the turn of the Congress. Although the Congress campaign was managed by Virbhadra Singh, who is caught in a web of corruption charges, the overriding concern of the people seems to have been to vote out the Dhumal government. After a full term in power, the BJP carried out a negative campaign trying to blame the United Progressive Alliance government at the Centre for all the miseries of the commoners. While attacking the Centre for the diesel price hike, and the cap on LPG cylinders for domestic use, Mr. Dhumal had little to show in terms of his own achievements. No ruling party can hope to retain power on a predominantly negative campaign. The BJP and Mr. Dhumal failed to see that the time to put the UPA government in the dock is the Lok Sabha election of 2014, and not the Assembly election of Himachal Pradesh. Not surprisingly, all the aggression of Mr. Dhumal could not hide his own weaknesses.
Given his clout within the Congress, and the fact that he led the campaign, Virbhadra Singh is the frontrunner for the post of Chief Minister. But if the Congress is keen on injecting vigour and vitality into the new government, it should look at alternatives to the septuagenarian. The success of the Congress had nothing substantial to do with the organisational abilities of Mr. Singh; the people had no real alternative in the current context. Mr. Singh, who was earlier Union Minister of Steel, resigned in June this year after a trial court in Himachal Pradesh framed charges of bribery and criminal misconduct against him and his wife Pratibha Singh. His name also figured in documents seized by Income Tax authorities in searches against the steel major, Ispat. Mr. Singh is yet to clear his name in these cases, and though he won with a huge margin in the Assembly election, he could soon turn a liability for the Congress. If Sonia Gandhi and the rest of the Congress high command do not want the party in Himachal Pradesh to go the way of the BJP, then change is the only option. After all, that is the essence of the present mandate.