Himachal political foes bury hatchet

Mandi: Too old to campaign for his political rival and six-time Congress Chief Minister Virbhadra Singh, former Telecom Minister Sukh Ram, 91, is back in the field, this time battling for his grandson Ashray Sharma, a Congress candidate from this constituency in Himachal Pradesh.

Popularly known as Panditji in his bastion of Mandi, six-time legislator and three-time MP Sukh Ram had, in the previous parliamentary elections, refused to campaign for Virbhadra Singh from Mandi constituency from where he was three-time MP and his wife one-time lawmaker.

Sukh Ram had openly told the media during the 2013 Lok Sabha by-poll – caused Virdhadra Singh’s resignation – that he was too old to take to the streets for helping Virbhadra Singh’s wife Pratibha Singh.

Congress veteran Virbhadra Singh, who vacated the Mandi seat in December 2012 after being elected a member of the state assembly, had won the seat in 2009 by defeating the BJP’s Maheshwar Singh.

The Mandi Lok Sabha seat has been a traditional bastion of the Congress all through and it lost it for the first time in 1977.

The constituency, which includes Kullu, Mandi and some areas of Chamba and Shimla districts, besides the tribal-dominated assembly constituencies of Kinnaur and Lahaul and Spiti, is one of the country’s largest.

Sukh Ram and Ashray Sharma on March 25 rejoined the Congress after parting ways from the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). Ahead of launching the campaign, he met Virbhadra Singh in New Delhi to iron out their differences.

Currently his conviction in a financial scandal involving the purchase of telecom equipment from a Hyderabad-based private firm and amassing assets disproportionate to his income is pending in the Supreme Court. The scam had prompted Sukh Ram to resign as the Communications Minister in the Narasimha Rao government in 1996.

“As Panditji commands much influence in the area, we are taking his help not only in Mandi but also in nearby constituencies,” a senior Congress leader told IANS.

Political observers say Ashray Sharma is also cashing in on the legacy of his father Anil Sharma, still a BJP leader and a Cabinet Minister in the Jai Ram Thakur-led government.

He is expected to quit his ministerial berth.

“I will neither campaign for my son nor participate in any of his election function,” Anil Sharma told IANS.

Anil Sharma, a legislator from Mandi, was a minister in the state from 1993 to 1997 and from 2012 to 2017.

The Sukh Ram family joined the BJP just before the 2017 state Assembly polls with the former minister saying he was doing so as he was being constantly being humiliated by Virbhadra Singh.

Ashray Sharma is up against the BJP’s Ram Sawroop Sharma, who is trying his luck for the second time.

“Panditji’s telephone still rings in the hearts of the people of this state. As a Telecom Minister, the state got major benefits in terms of infrastructure,” an observer said.

Interestingly, when the telecom scam came to light Sukh Ram, who blamed certain Congress leaders for conspiraing against him, parted ways with the Congress in 1997 and floated regional political outfit Himachal Vikas Congress (HVC).

At that time, HVC got telephone as the party symbol and contested the 1998 and 2003 Assembly elections. HVC won five seats in 1998 and one seat in 2003.

In 2004, the Congress managed to bring back the HVC rebels into the party fold.

“He is still a Telecom Minister for us. We got a telephone connection (from Minister’s discretionary quota) in 1994 when it was selling at a premium of Rs 50,000,” said octogenarian Subhash Sood, a resident of Mandi.

He said unemployed youths in the state were the main beneficiaries as most of them managed to get sanctioned STD and PCO booths from Sukh Ram, who has almost retired from active politics spanning half a century as the Telecom Minister.

But Sukh Ram’s tainted past has given an opportunity to Ashray Sharma rival candidates to propagate in this poll.

Sukh Ram was granted interim bail by the apex court in 2012 after he surrendered before a trial court to serve his three year sentence in the telecom scam case.

The Delhi High Court had in 2011 upheld the lower court’s 2002 judgement holding Sukh Ram and others guilty.

Himachal Pradesh goes to polls on May 19.