The Congress has turned a new leaf in Himachal Pradesh by electing Sukhvinder Singh Sukhu as the Chief Minister, and the State’s 15th, on Sunday. The victory in Himachal Pradesh has come as a silver lining for the Congress amid dark clouds over the party. The victory is narrow — the Congress led the rival Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) by one percentage point in terms of vote share — and the State is tiny, with four Lok Sabha seats. Still, the party’s return to power after a hiatus of five years gives it hope that it can be the refuge for people who may be looking for an alternative to the BJP. The party quickly resolved the tussle for the top post. In choosing Mr. Sukhu, it has effected a shift that has the potential to inspire workers and blunt the BJP’s charge of dynastic politics levelled against it. The son of a bus driver and a four-time MLA who sold milk for a living in his early years, Mr. Sukhu is as modest and grounded as a politician could get. The soft spoken leader has never shied away from taking a position and stood up to the late Virbhadra Singh who had the Congress under his thumb for decades. Mr. Sukhu is uniquely qualified for the job, and his elevation signals much needed but often missing dynamism in the Congress.
The new leader will have an uphill task in managing party dynamics and governance. The Congress has made a slew of promises, not entirely thought through. Topping the list is the promise of restoration of the old pension scheme in place of the market-linked New Pension System/Scheme (NPS). A return to OPS would see the introduction of new welfare schemes that will burden the exchequer. The State has 1.5 lakh employees under the NPS, and a majority of them who are opposed to it are likely to have favoured the Congress in these elections. Mr. Sukhu’s elevation also unsettles the entrenched power structure in the Congress and he will have to ensure the support of the family and loyalists of Virbhadra Singh. He will also have to bear the weight of expectations arising out of the Congress’s national plans. The party wants to showcase governance in the three States under its rule to win votes elsewhere. Himachal Pradesh may be a small State but it has acquired a status that is disproportionate to its size with the change of government. What works in Mr. Sukhu’s favour is the goodwill that he has gained over 40 years in politics.
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