Mandi seat a test of nerves for Cong, BJP

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By: Ravinder Vasudeva

Shimla: With only four Parliamentary seats up for grabs, the Lok sabha elections are seldom more intense or interesting in this state with Mandi Parliamentary constituency already emerging as a hot bed of politics, three months ahead of the polls. Quite unwittingly, Mandi has emerged as the seat where not only the BJP and the Congress will fight for their prestige, but is the only seat in the state where the Left front has popped up a candidate. The battle gets more interesting as both BJP and Congress have announced the candidature of Maheshwar Singh and Virbhadra Singh respectively, scions of prominent royal families of the state.

Virbhadra Singh, has been the chief minister of the state for four terms and has represented this parliamentary constituency for four times – 1962, 1967, 1972 and 1980. He represents the erstwhile royal family of Bushehar state of the Shimla hills.

On the other hand, the BJP’s candidate Maheshwar Singh is the party’s stalwart in the state and has represented Mandi Lok Sabha seat thrice in 1989, 1998 and 1999; was member of the Rajya Sabha from 1992-1998; and is the head of the erstwhile influential royal family of Kullu.

The Left Front’s joint candidate for the seat Onkar Shad is a senior Kisan leader and has the potential of splitting some of the Congress’s votes.

Since 1957, the Mandi Lok sabha seat has, except once in 1989, been won by the state’s ruling party. In 1989 Maheshwar Singh of BJP defeated a senior Congress candidate Sukh Ram by a margin of 28069 votes. Political pundits feel that the scales may be tilted in favour of the BJP as BJP MLAs are seated on 13 out of 17 assembly seats that constitute the Mandi parliamentary constituency. It may be noted here that after delimitation process, Dharmapur Assembly constituency in Mandi district got shifted to Hamirpur Parliamentary Constituency. Also, the total number of Assembly seats in Kullu district increased to four from the previous three, all of which are represented by the BJP MLAs.

“All is not well for the BJP in Kullu district which could lead to the some backlash for the party in the ensuing polls. Moreover, Dharmapur Assembly segment of the Mandi district in the past gave maximum margins to BJP candidates, but is now not a part of the Mandi Parliamentary seat (after the delimitation process). This would also harm BJP’s prospects seriously”, reveals a BJP insider. BJP may also have to contend with the undercurrent from the Mandi district as a result of poor representation to the district’s MLAs in the state cabinet. Out of six BJP MLAs from the district (out of a total of ten Assembly seats in the district) only one, PWD minister Gulab Singh Thakur who represents the Jogindernagar Assembly constituency, has found favour for a cabinet berth in the Prem Kumar Dhumal government. Notably, Thakur joined the BJP in 1998 and there is a sentiment within the BJP cadres against his not being a “cadre man”. His rise could also be hurting the ambitions of some BJP leaders from the area. All these factors are likely to come into play in the forth coming Lok Sabha polls for the seat.

From Congress’ perspective, the personal status of Virbhadra Singh in the region, especially in Rampur, Kinnaur, Lahual Spiti and Aani areas of the parliamentary segment can boost Virbhadra’s chances to prove his mettle despite the fact that his party is not in the power in the state. Congress’s vote share may be affected by the anti-incumbency factor against the sitting M.P. from the seat Pratibha Singh, who is also Singh’s wife. The personal interest of chief minister Prem Kumar Dhumal to defeat his political archrival Virbhadra from the Mandi seat could add to both – the worries of the Congress in Mandi and the drama that the seat may witness in the run-up to the polls.

History of Mandi Parliamentary seat

The constituency was represented by Rani Amrit Kaur of the erstwhile Patiala state during 1952-57, while these areas of Himachal were still part of Punjab. In the Lok Sabha elections that followed in 1957, the seat was represented by Raja Joginder Sen of the erstwhile Mandi state, who represented the seat till 1962. In the following elections that year Raja Lalit Sen of Sundarnagar or the erstwhile Suket state was elected. He repeated his victory in the 1967 elections.

However, in period from 1977 to 1979, the constituency was represented by Ganga Singh who represented the Janata Party, which came to power at the centre immediately after the elections that followed the imposition of emergency in the country and the Congress, under Indira Gandhi was routed. He defeated Congress candidate Virbhadra Singh.

Then came along the man, who called himself the son-of-the-soil, Sukh Ram. He switched from state politics to the Parliament and won comfortably in 1985. In the next election, however, it was again another blue-blooded royal, Maheshwar Singh, scion of the erstwhile Kullu state who drubbed the son-of-the-soil at the polls.

But Sukh Ram bounced back and won again in 1994, but was expelled from the Congress a couple of years later, following the reported recovery of large amounts of cash from his residence. To re-establish his political dominion Sukh Ram floated Himachal Vikas Congress and came back into politics with a bang – winning five Assembly seats in 1998 along with wresting Shimla (reserved) parliamentary seat from the Congress in 1999. In 1998, Sukh Ram’s HVC under an alliance with the BJP supported the candidature of Maheshwar Singh, who won easily. In the last Parliament elections in 2004, Congress candidate Pratibha Singh defeated Maheshwar Singh.