Himachal Pradesh chief minister Sukhwinder Singh Sukhu expanded his cabinet on Sunday 8 January, inducting seven ministers and six chief parliamentary secretaries. The fact that the cabinet expansion took place nearly a month after Sukhwinder Sukhu and Mukesh Agnihotri were sworn in as CM and Deputy CM respectively, is indicative of the push and pull that may have taken place within the Himachal Pradesh Congress.
In the end, the Congress leadership may have managed to balance the interests of different factions. However, there still seems to have been an imbalance in terms of region and caste.
Who Are the Seven Ministers Inducted?
Colonel (Retd.) Dhani Ram Shandil: MLA from Solan, 82-year old Shandil is the oldest member of the Himachal Pradesh Assembly. He also happens to be among the senior-most Dalit faces of the Congress in Himachal Pradesh. According to reports, he was sulking after not being made Deputy CM. But now he is expected to get important ministries.
Chander Kumar: MLA from Jawali in Kangra district, 78-year-old Chander Kumar is a veteran Congress leader and had first become a minister nearly four decades ago. He is also a prominent OBC face of the party in the state.
Harshwardhan Chauhan: 58-year old Chauhan is the MLA from Shillai in Sirmaur district. His father Guman Singh Chauhan also used to be MLA from Shillai. In the 2022 Assembly election, Chauhan defeated CM Jai Ram Thakur's aide Baldev Singh Tomar. Chauhan is a Rajput.
Jagat Singh Negi: 65-year-old Jagat Singh Negi is the MLA from Kinnaur and former deputy speaker of the Himachal Pradesh assembly. Negi has been an important part of apple-growers associations in Kinnaur and his appointment needs to be seen in the context of how anger among apple-growers contributed to the BJP's defeat. Negi is from a tribal community.
Vikramaditya Singh: Son of former chief minister Virbhadra Singh and current Pradesh Congress chief Pratibha Singh, Vikramaditya Singh is the MLA from Shimla Rural. At 32 he would be the youngest minister in the cabinet.
Anirudh Singh: 45-year-old Anirudh Singh is the MLA from Kasumpti in Shimla district. He is also a Rajput.
Rohit Thakur: 49-year-old Rohit Thakur is the MLA from Jubbal Kotkhai in Shimla district. He was involved in the apple-growers protest.
In addition to these, CM Sukhu has appointed six MLAs as Chief Parliamentary Secretaries:
Sunder Singh Thakur (MLA from Kullu)
Mohan Lal Brakta (MLA from Rohru in Shimla district)
Ram Kumar Chaudhary (MLA from Doon in Solan district)
Ashish Butail (MLA from Palampur in Kangra district)
Kishori Lal (MLA from Baijanth in Kangra district)
Sanjay Awasthi (MLA from Arki in Solan district).
Factions Balanced But Not Caste and Region
The delay in cabinet expansion seems to have been due to the need to balance different factions, especially those led by Pratibha Singh and CM Sukhu himself, besides the considerations of the state in-charge Rajeev Shukla. This seems to have been achieved with loyalists of Virbhadra Singh, Sukwhinder Sukhu as well as a few unaligned leaders accommodated.
CM Sukhu also deserves credit for balancing youth and experience. Younger leaders like Vikramaditya Singh, Anirudh Singh and Rohit Thakur will be working alongside veterans like Dhani Ram Shandil and Chander Kumar.
However, there is a regional disparity.
The chief minister and deputy chief minister are both from the Hamirpur Lok Sabha constituency area. Five of the ministers - Dhaniram Shandil, Harshwardhan Chauhan, Anirudh Singh, Rohit Thakur, Vikramaditya Singh - are all from the Shimla Lok Sabha constituency area.
Chander Kumar is the only minister from Kangra district, where Congress won 10 out 15 Assembly constituencies.
Even among Parliamentary secretaries the Shimla region got three our of six posts, Kangra two and Kullu (which falls in Mandi Lok Sabha seat) got one.
In terms of caste also the selection has been a bit lopsided, with the CM and four ministers being Rajputs. There are only one Dalit, Brahmin, ST and OBC each. Dalit representation is better among the CPSs with two Dalits being given the position - Mohan Lal Brakta and Kishori Lal.
There are no women in the cabinet or as Chief Parliamentary Secretaries but that's because the Congress doesn't have a single woman MLA in Himachal Pradesh. One of its most prominent female leaders Asha Kumari lost from her seat Dalhousie. Other women candidates to lose were Champa Thakur and Dayal Pyari.
The names of a number of other leaders were also doing the rounds such as Dharamshala MLA Sudhir Sharma, Ghumarwin MLA Rajesh Dharmani, Jaisinghpur MLA Yadvinder Goma and Theog MLA Kuldeep Singh Rathore but they couldn't make the cut. Many are now hoping to be accommodated in the next cabinet expansion for filling the three remaining vacancies.
Striking a regional and caste balance is important for the Congress in the run-up to the 2024 Lok Sabha elections. The party drew a blank in all four seats in Himachal Pradesh in the past two Lok Sabha elections - 2014 and 2019. In fact since 2009, the only seat the Congress has won in Himachal Pradesh is Mandi - won by CM Virbhadra Singh in 2009 and by his wife Pratibha Singh in a bypoll in 2021.
The party has won Kangra Lok Sabha seat only once in the last six elections and Hamirpur it has failed to win even once since 1998. Therefore, past precedents would indicate that Mandi and Shimla would still remain relatively better bets in 2024. Even that won't be easy given BJP's domination of Himachal Pradesh at the Lok Sabha level.