Existential Crisis for Cong in Himachal Pradesh: How Chaos of Cross Voting for Rajya Sabha Seat was Engineered

In order to get a floor test before today’s budget session, the former chief minister of state and prominent BJP leader Jai Ram Thakur met the governor.
BJP’s legislature party, led by former Chief Minister Jai Ram Thakur, met Governor Shiv Pratap Shukla on Wednesday morning.
BJP’s legislature party, led by former Chief Minister Jai Ram Thakur, met Governor Shiv Pratap Shukla on Wednesday morning.

New Delhi: A day after winning the Rajya Sabha election from Himachal Pradesh by allegedly organising cross-voting, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) has moved quickly to purportedly engineer the fall of the Congress government in the state. And in what is thought to be the first move toward the direction, BJP’s legislature party, led by former Chief Minister Jai Ram Thakur, met Governor Shiv Pratap Shukla on February 28 morning. 

Thakur urged Shukla to permit the division of votes prior to the state budget being passed in the budget session so that the Congress could “prove” its majority in the House.

Following his meeting with the governor, Thakur told journalists that the Sukhu government no longer had the mandate to remain in office. He stated the governor was aware of the state’s most recent political happenings.

During the budget session today, the state assembly witnessed disturbances as the opposition reiterated their demands for Chief Minister Sukhvinder Singh Sukhu’s resignation and the split of votes. The House was adjourned after the speaker suspended 15 BJP MLAs, including Thakur, for misbehavior. Despite their suspension, the BJP MLAs did not leave the house.

“The assembly speaker did not entertain our demand for the division of votes despite the provision in the law. It was obvious that the CM is scared of since he does not have the numbers now to stay in government,” said Thakur.

A sort of coup is underway within the Congress as a result of internal strife between Sukhu and Pratibha Singh, the chief of the Himachal Pradesh Congress Committee and wife of the late Virbhadra Singh, a veteran Congress leader who served the state as chief minister for eight terms.

After the Congress won the state election in November 2022, Pratibha was hoping to become the chief minister, but the party appointed Sukkhu instead.

It is thought that the majority of the six MLAs — who cross voted in favour of BJP candidate Harsh Mahajan and are currently rebelling against the party, were Virbhadra’s close aide.

Adding to the unrest within the Congress party, Virbhadra’s son Vikramaditya Singh announced his resignation as the minister of the state. He said that the Sukhu government had “humiliated its own MLAs several times”.

He said he cannot continue serving in the government, and he has already briefed the party high command in this regard. “The next step for the Congress in Himachal Pradesh will need to be decided by the party high command,” he told the media in Shimla — the state’s capital. 

After the Congress won the state election in November 2022, Pratibha Singh was hoping to become the chief minister, but the party appointed Sukkhu instead.
After the Congress won the state election in November 2022, Pratibha Singh was hoping to become the chief minister, but the party appointed Sukkhu instead.

So, How the Political Drama Began

Congress leader Abhishek Manu Singhvi lost Rajya Sabha elections to BJP’s Mahajan despite the fact that the former had a clear majority with 40 members in the 60-member Assembly in Himachal Pradesh.

This happened because nine MLA, including six of them belonging to the Congress and three independents, cross voted to hand over the state’s only vacant Rajya Sabha seat to the saffron party. 

Notably, in the entire North India, the Congress is ruling only one state — Himachal Pradesh. So, this defeat is also a face of loss for the grand old party.

The Sukhu government failed to assess disgruntlement within its ranks. Two MLAs — Sudhir Sharma and Rajinder Rana — led the rebellion because they were given ministerial berths despite Rana defeating BJP heavyweight Prem Kumar Dhumal.

“There was tell-tale science of trouble, simmering discontent within the ranks for a while. It did not come immediately. The Sukhu government chose to take it lightly. The two MLAs chose the Rajya Sabha elections to finally make their voice heard as their differences with the Sukhu government found no takers for the past few months,” said a Congress functionary in the state told The Mooknayak.

About the reasons behind their disgruntlement, he said they wanted to be appointed as ministers in the state government.

“In addition to defeating Dhumal in the 2012 election, Rana again won the Sujanpur seat in 2017. It’s Rana and Sharma who got four other MLAs (Lakhanpal, Devender Kumar Bhutto, Ravi Thakur and Chaitanya Sharma) to rebel as well,” he said.

What has come as a shocker for Sukhu is that the two MLAs (Rana and Lakhanpal) who have rebelled come from his home district of Hamirpur. Another rebel Ashish Sharma, who is an independent MLA and was backing the Congress government, is also from Hamirpur.

The disgruntlement, another source said, was also triggered by the “old rivalry” in the party.

“Overlooking Pratibha for the chief ministerial post in 2023 did not go down well within the party,” he said, adding that as far as Rana is concerned, he was signaling his disagreements by continuously writing to the chief minister against various issues such as paper leak, removal of the state’s director general of police, etc.

“After all this fellow on deaf ears, he was left with no option but to give this major jolt to the party,” he added.

The Sukhu government has to get its budget passed from the Assembly, and it is likely to emerge as a big challenge. But the six MLAs are bound by the party’s whip. If they don’t follow it, the anti-defection law may be applied that may result in their disqualification. 

So, they are unlikely to vote for the BJP on the budget in the House. It will be interesting to see what strategy the government adopts.

How was the Cross Voting Organised?

After BJP’s national president JP Nadda vacated the seat to contest from the party’s safe haven of Gujarat, the election was held in the hill state for its lone seat in the Rajya Sabha. There was a high-voltage drama for this seat.

According to Congress leaders in the state, the BJP allegedly “lured” the Congress MLAs with “big bucks”, took them to Haryana to ensure that they are not contacted by their party and made them vote for Mahajan.

Following the major upset, taking moral high ground while talking to journalists following the major upset, Chief Minister Sukhu said cross-voting and influencing MLAs to vote for a party they don’t belong to is not in the culture of the state.

“The credit goes to the BJP for bringing in this new culture in the state. Those who have given in are being asked by their families as to why they do so. And since their families are raising questions on their decision, a few of them may think about their ‘ghar wapsi’ (homecoming),” he said.

The balance tilted in Mahajan’s favour after the cross voting of the six Congress MLAs and three independents who increased the BJP’s number from 25 to 34 — resulting in a tie as the Congress strength dwindled. 

As a result of the tie, the Election Commission decided to declare a winner through a lucky draw. It’s here Mahajan emerged as a winner.

Sukhu was confident of Shighvi’s victory. All preparations were in place. The party’s law maker Sudarshan Babloo was flown from a private hospital — where he was undergoing treatment — for voting.

He was received by the chief minister himself who took him to the Assembly for voting even though the BJP objected to it.

Before the polling began, Sukhu told the media “voting is done based on ideology, and not conscience”. “If no one (his party MLAs) is sold, all 40 MLAs will vote for our candidate,” he said.

When asked about the looming crisis in the state, he said they will see once the Assembly sessions begin.

Meanwhile, HPCC chief Pratibha does think it was inevitable. “There are resentments, resulting in a crisis, that the party must address,” she said.

A few leaders have defeated BJP’s stalwarts such as Prem Kumar Dhumal and they, according to her, were expecting a post in the government. “The government should have cared about those who were unhappy,” she said.

Despite having numbers not in its favour, the BJP decided to field its candidate on the last day of nomination. “But it was taken casually by the state leadership of the party,” a senior Congress leader from Himachal Pradesh told The Mooknayak.

Before switching over to the BJP ahead of the 2022 Assembly election in the state, Mahajan was earlier with the Congress where he has spent almost 40 years. He has served as MLA from 1993 to 2003 and was the chief minister once. 

“He is known for his management skills. Our party was well aware of this fact,” he said.

It is said that he was close to former Chief Minister Virbhadra.

Initially, the Congress wanted to field Sonia Gandhi — who was elected unopposed from Rajasthan — from the hill state. But the decision was withdrawn after the party poll observers brief the high command that Himachal is not a safe seat.

For Rajya Sabha, there are no direct elections. People vote for MLAs and the legislators vote to elect members for the upper house of Parliament.

The Rajya Sabha MPs are supposed to raise issues of the state — from where they have won. 

For example, Himachal is suffering from exaggerated climate change. While last year, there was an excessive monsoon, there was a winter drought this year. 

The upper house MPs from the state are expected to raise such issues in the Parliament. 

Corrective Measures Failed?

Congress’ top leadership swung into action to pacify the disgruntled legislators only after the party faced the defeat.

In view of the looming existential crisis, Karnataka Deputy Chief Minister DK Shivakumar and Congress senior leader Bhupinder Singh Hooda have been appointed by the party’s national president, Mallikarjun Kharge, to hold talks with the six MLAs who have voted in favour of the BJP.

The law makers, sources told The Mooknayak, are unhappy with the style of functioning of the chief minister and want his replacement.

Both Shivakumar and Hooda are in Shimla to take stock of the situation. The sources said they are engaging with the MLAs and trying to find out a solution of their grievances so that the lawmakers can be pacified and the government in the state headed by the grand old party can survive.

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