'Jai Ram Thakur is badly cornered in Mandi now'
Kuldeep Singh Rathore, 58, was appointed PCC president close to the Lok Sabha poll replacing Sukhwinder Singh Sukhu, a sitting MLA. His brief was to put the party's factionalism to an end and ensure active engagement of the veterans like Chief Minister Virbhadra Singh, who was vehemently seeking removal of Sukhu for quite sometimes. A close lieutenant of former Union Minister Anand Sharma, Rathore says the party is now fully geared up to fight the Lok Sabha polls. Ashwani Sharma, Assistant Editor, the Millennium Post, spoke to Rathore at Shimla. Here are excerpts from his interview.
Around three months into the job, do you think you are in the full command of the things?
Yes, 100 per cent. When I was given the charge, the party was in complete disarray. Though I don't want to cause any aspersions on my predecessor it is a hard fact that I inherited the organisation that was split into many factions. Senior leaders were unhappy and utterly disappointed with the party's state of affairs. Knowing that the elections are around the corner, I did not waste a single day. I had the organisational experience since being a PCC general secretary before this. I reached out to all senior leaders. I also met the workers. Noted down their suggestions. A clear road map emerged before me. That has been put into full action.
How tough was to convince Virbhadra Singh and get him on the board?
Virbhadra Singh is a towering leader. He had been Chief Minister six-times, a former union minister and PCC president several times. He understood the challenge before us and trusted me. I told him simply that if I am a 'commander', appointed by Congress president Rahul Gandhi, you are our Commander-In-Chief (C-in-C). He laughed and said ok.
What are the party's prospects. Do you think, you will be able to open your account?
In 2014, the Congress could not win any seat. All four seats were won by the BJP. This was basically due to Modi wave sweeping the country. They (BJP) mislead voters. Narendra Modi made tall promises. People in Himachal Pradesh are very simple. They believed him blindly. They thought the state will get a lot of benefits /help from the centre when Modi becomes the Prime Minister. We also expected a financial package, lot of jobs for the youths, and believed that the apple growers will be benefited from what he promised to Himachal Pradesh farmers.
What has really changed for the Congress now?
There is a lot of change. Modi faces three-fold anti-incumbency. He did not help at all though he claims Himachal Pradesh is his second home. His corruption, the Rafale deal and other exposed, failure to provide jobs, help fruit growers in the state, and above all now non-governance of the BJP government under Jai Ram Thakur. People feel Modi is a liar. His 'jumla' politics is not going to work again. Modi factor not cut any ice here. No vote for Modi.
If so, why senior Congress leaders did not agree to contest the Lok Sabha polls?
It's true. I wanted senior leaders to contest. I was keen to see Virbhadra Singh contesting Mandi – which is a hot seat for us now. He was not ready. Nevertheless, I think we have been able to field best and also winnable candidates. The BJP position is so bad that it had to change two candidates. It's a clear defeat of the party because the performance of its MPs is zero.
Do you feel the return of Pt Sukh Ram with his grandson Ashray Sharma in tow will help the Congress,especially Ashray having been fielded from Mandi?
Oh yes. Sukh Ram's entry is definitely a blow to the BJP. He has a strong influence intact in the area. Since his son Anil Sharma had quit the Congress and joined the BJP in 2017 before the polls, the Congress lost the whole of Mandi district. This time, Chief Minister Jai Ram Thakur --- who hails from Mandi district, is badly cornered by the Congress. He is worried about Mandi to save his chair. Anil Sharma has also quit the cabinet. Let us see how Jai Ram Thakur saves the seat.
But will Virbhadra Singh campaign in Mandi?
We had discussed this factor in length. Virbhadra Singh Ji has already joined the poll campaign. His Mandi campaign programme will soon be released officially. I can't say if he will share the stage with Pt Sukh Ram but he (Virbhadra ) will be party's star campaigner for all four seats.
The BJP has a lot of resources for the campaign, hoardings are already out all over the state. The Congress has no money to fight polls.
I always say we will fight 'Dhanbal' (money power) with "Janabal" (manpower)
Virbhadra Singh says the Congress will win at least two seats. What's your assessment?
No, No. We will all four seats.