Sukhwinder Singh Sukhu took oath as the chief minister of Himachal Pradesh on Sunday 11 December along with Mukesh Agnihotri as Deputy chief minister, the first ever in the history of Himachal Pradesh.
This is a delicate balancing act that the party seems to be attempting. There are several aspects to the Congress' leadership challenge in Himachal Pradesh.
But they are components of a bigger change - the move away from the Virbhadra Singh era.
A six-term chief minister and Raja of Bushahr principality in Shimla district, Virbhadra Singh towered over the Congress in Himachal Pradesh for the past three decades until his demise in 2021.
He still remains the only Congress leader with pan-Himachal popularity.
None of the present leaders in the Congress or even in the BJP presently, can claim to be popular across the linguistically and geographically diverse state.
Change in Regional Balance
Probably the biggest problem that the Congress will face in Himachal Pradesh is to balance different regions in the state.
So far in terms of the top two leaders, the Congress seems to have ignored this factor.
Both CM Sukhwinder Sukhu and deputy CM Mukesh Agnihotri are from the in Lower Himachal districts of Hamirpur and Una respectively. Their constituencies - Nadaun and Haroli - fall in the same Lok Sabha constituency, Hamirpur, presently represented by Union Minister Anurag Thakur.
Lower Himachal has always been a stronger area for the BJP.
Till date all the Congress CMs in the state have been from Upper Himachal, specifically the Shimla Lok Sabha constituency area - Yashwant Singh Parmar was from Sirmaur district, Thakur Ram Lal and Virbhadra Singh were both from Shimla district.
On the other hand, the first two BJP CMs were from Western Himachal - Shanta Kumar from Kangra district and Prem Kumar Dhumal from Hamirpur district.
The BJP tried to change the game by making Jai Ram Thakur from Mandi district the CM. This did benefit the party in Mandi as it won nine out of 10 assembly seats in the district in the recent elections.
While the BJP may have lost, its sweep in Mandi does indicate that making a CM from a particular district does have an impact among voters.
Congress may have erred in ignoring the two districts which gave it the maximum number of seats - Kangra district where it won 10 out of 15 seats and Shimla where it won seven out of eight.
It is quite likely that they may have to give the lion's share of ministerial births to MLAs from these districts.
In addition to region, the Congress would also have to think about caste. The CM is a Thakur and Deputy CM a Brahmin. But surveys say that the biggest voting bloc for the party were Dalits. The party would need to take that into consideration while allotting ministerial berths.
Accommodating Virbhadra Singh's Family and Loyalists
Sukhwinder Sukhu has consistently been on the opposing side of Virbhadra Singh in the Congress' internal dynamics in Himachal Pradesh.
He was among the leaders from a Youth Congress background who were eleveated by Rahul Gandhi as state party presidents. The UPA was still in power and the Congress central leadership, especially Rahul Gandhi, could afford to promote leaders opposed to dominant state satraps such as Virbhadra Singh in this case.
His elevation as CM, though a win for the Rahul Gandhi loyalosts, may not be taken positively by the Virbhadra Singh lobby.
Pratibha Singh, the former CM's wife is the Pradesh Congress Committee president and their son Vikramaditya Singh has won again from Shimla rural.
There were rumours that the BJP is reaching out to Pratibha Singh through former Punjab CM Captain Amarinder Singh, who is related to them. However, as of now, it seems that Pratibha Singh has agreed to the arrangement proposed by the high command.
It is likely that Vikramaditya Singh, 33, could be made a minister.
Mukesh Agnihotri is also known to be a Virbhadra Singh loyalist. It was Virbhadra Singh who identified Agnihotri when he was a journalist in Shimla and brought him into politics.
Agnihotri's father was a government officer in Punjab and later contested from the Santokhgarh constituency in 1998, but lost. Agnihotri won the seat in the next election and again in 2008.
After delimitation, Agnihotri contested and won from Haroli in 2012, 2017 and 2022. Agnihotri is hugely popular in his area and known to work hard for his constituents but he isn't much known outside the district.
New CM's Image and Authority
Himachal Pradesh is used to strong chief ministers whose personality is often larger than the state unit of their party. This partly explains the longevity of CMs - the state has seen just six CMs in its 6 decades history. Compare it to neighbouring Uttarakhand that has seen 10 CMs in just 22 years of its existence.
This is important to understand because one of the things that went against BJP's Jai Ram Thakur is that despite his decent image, he was seen as not being in complete control of the government. Many saw him as JP Nadda's nominee who always had to look over his shoulder.
The challenge for CM Sukhu will be to establish his own authority and public appeal, but without disturbing rival factions within the state Congress.
He has several things going for him. He has a compelling story, being the son of a bus driver and having risen through the ranks in the politics. He is also a Thakur, like all CMs of Himachal except one.
He is also fortunate to be leading the Congress at a time when there is a leadership vacuum on the top but a very vibrant crop of leaders is emerging.
Some of the MLAs like Raghubir Singh Bali, Chaitanya Sharma, Ashish Butail, Bhawani Pathania, Anirudh Singh and of course, Vikramaditya Singh, to name a few, are barely in their 30s and 40s.
Another one to watch out for is former minister Sudhir Sharma from Dharamshala, who turned 50 this year.
Sukhu shouldn't make the mistake that Virbhadra Singh did, of not nurturing a second rung leadership.
A lot would depend on how well Sukhu's government is able to fulfill the Congress' poll promises. Return to the Old Pension Scheme, providing five lakh jobs (including one lakh government jobs), Rs 1500 per month for women are all difficult promises to fulfill in a state that is facing a massive debt.
These factors would assume importance in the run-up to the 2024 Lok Sabha elections.
In the state elections, the electorate voted mainly on local factors but Prime Minister Narendra Modi remains popular. Avoiding yet another 4:0 drubbing like 2014 and 2019 won't be an easy task for Sukhu, Pratibha Singh and Agnihotri.