Six-time Chief Minister of Himachal Pradesh and Congress stalwart, Virbhadra Singh, seemed to have prevailed over the elections even in his death. On Tuesday Virbhadra Singh’s wife 67-year-old Pratibha Singh dealt an unexpected blow to BJP by winning the Mandi Lok Sabha seat. She admits that the death of her husband played a role in her victory and feels that her husband’s political capital will continue to dominate the party’s affairs in the state. Ashwani Sharma of Outlook spoke to Pratibha Singh on Wednesday. The interview has been edited for length and clarity.
How important is this victory for you personally, and Congress?
I had been MP from Mandi twice earlier too. But that was when Raja Sahib (Late Virbhadra Singh) was around. It was he who used to manage everything for me. This is the first time when I contested the poll in his absence. I did miss him a lot during the campaign but I was determined to prove one thing - that whatever development had happened in the state was due to Raja Sahib’s vision. People valued his works and voted for me. We have won the semi-final.
Chief Minister Jai Ram Thakur had openly declared – “Mandi Hamari hai, Hamari rahegi”.
No, it did not bother me at all. BJP leaders also said many other things such as why am I contesting the poll after the death of my husband. I chose to ignore such a narrative. Jai Ram Thakur’s statements show his parochial mindset. He tried to play a regional and emotional card to win the seat for his party. Everyone knows that Raja Sahib was an MP from Mandi four times. But he never tried to confine himself to a region or district. The slogan seems to have boomeranged on the Chief Minister.
What message do you see emerging from the result of Mandi bypoll?
The people have lost their faith in the BJP government, both at the centre and in the state. They won the last assembly elections in 2017 by making false promises and spreading canards against Virbhadra Singh and the Congress. After coming to power, BJP did nothing for the people of the state. No new project or funding from the centre has come to the state. Their so-called ‘double engine’ growth slogan has fallen flat. The people want to get rid of the BJP misrule, that’s the message loud and clear.
How did you strike a chord with the voters?
There were a lot of burning issues. But the most powerful one which worked in Mandi and three other bypolls in the state assemblies was inflation. The soaring prices have hit the common person badly. The BJP did nothing to give relief to the people who are getting crushed by the weight of the rising prices of fuel and essential items. The educated youths have no jobs, that was another poll issue. The BJP ridiculed the Congress for highlighting the prices issue but for us it was a real issue in the bypoll.
Did you feel any sympathy factor working in your favour
Those coming to my meetings used to relate to the memories of Raja Sahib. I saw many women weeping when I used to refer to Virbhadra Singh ji and his contributions to the state, and his connection with all the masses. There was a sympathy factor in our favour and I don’t see anything wrong with it.
Many believe Virbhadra Singh’s death has left the Congress without a tall leader in the state.
I felt so too initially. But the way everyone came together and worked in the bypoll shows that the Congress has given hope to the people. The writing on the wall is clear for the BJP. It won't stand in the way of the Congress’s return to power next year. But for this, a proper roadmap needs to be prepared. The party must get into a poll made in advance to build its team. We have to work hard unitedly to regain people's faith. There is a need for a clear strategy and also for a vision to be shared with the people for the state's development.
Your Victory proves that Virbhadra Singh's legacy will continue to dominate politics in future too.
We are fortunate if this turns out to be the case. The people of Himachal Pradesh value every contribution of his political leadership.