In Himachal, Virbhadra-Dhumal Tussle Continues Unabated
Six-time chief minister, Virbhadra and two-time CM, Dhumal, have remained at loggerheads over decades even at the top
The initiation of a Preliminary Enquiry (PE) by the CBI against Himachal Pradesh Chief Minister Virbhadra Singh, which came midway into his government’s tenure, was a fait accompli. In fact, most political observers were expecting an inquiry against him and his family members much earlier.
The Congress-led by Virbhadra Singh stormed to power after defeating a BJP government led by Prem Kumar Dhumal merely a year-and-a-half before Narendra Modi swept to power at the Centre. A record six-time chief minister, Virbhadra and two-time CM, Dhumal, have remained daggers drawn over the last couple of decades even as they swapped the top government seat in the state. Every change of government in Himachal Pradesh witnessed cases slapped against the predecessor and the 2012 election was no different.
Acquisition of Disproportionate Assets
During the run-up to the assembly elections, allegations surfaced against Virbhadra and his family members for allegedly acquiring disproportionate assets during his stint in the Union Steel ministry. It was alleged that he and his family members had filed Income Tax returns showing (tax free) agricultural income of Rs 47.35 lakh during the years 2009-10, 2010-2011 and 2011-12. However, he filed revised returns in 2012 showing agricultural income of Rs 6.1 crore during the three year period.
Union Finance Minister Arun Jaitley, while campaigning for the 2012 assembly elections, had held a press conference in Shimla and released these documents. He had appealed to the then Prime Minister Manmohan Singh to register a CBI case against Virbhadra describing it as an ``open and shut case’’. However, no cognisance was taken by the then government. Later, after the IT department issued him a show cause notice on the basis of these documents, Virbhadra obtained a stay from the courts.
With Jaitley’s release of the documents it was but expected that the Modi government would sooner or later initiate an inquiry. Virbhadra has, however, rubbished all allegations and has blamed Dhumal for pressuring the Centre to open an inquiry against him.
The Dharamsala Cricket Stadium
This time Virbhadra had, in particular, targeted Dhumal’s son Anurag Thakur, an active Bharatiya Yuva Janata leader and Secretary of the BCCI. Anurag was a vocal critic of Virbhadra Singh and had pushed for the creation of a picturesque cricket stadium in Dharamsala. The stadium had become a bone of contention between Virbhadra and Dhumal who had transferred land to the Himachal Pradesh Cricket Association headed by Anurag. In one of the first steps taken by the Virbhadra government, the stadium was taken over by the government in a midnight swoop. The issue is now before the courts.
The rivalry between the two dates back to 1998 when Virbhadra Singh attempted to form a government with the help of a BJP rebel. However, his government could last just 13 days as the MLA returned to the BJP fold. It was at this stage that Dhumal first emerged as a state BJP leader. He joined hands with former minister Sukh Ram, who nursed a grudge against Virbhadra, and formed a coalition government with five MLAs of Sukh Ram’s Himachal Vikas Congress.
As a quid pro quo, Sukh Ram pressurised Dhumal to order a CBI probe against Virbhadra, which started the bitter fight between the two. The CBI, however, did not find sufficient evidence to investigate. Dhumal also set up two high level committers to inquire into a recruitment scam during the Virbhadra regime. The committees detected alleged irregularities and the case was referred to the state vigilance bureau. Yet another case was filed against Virbhadra, called the `katha` scam, pertaining to allotment of precious khair wood to a private firm.
When Virbhadra wrested power five years later in 2003, he lost no time in ordering a series of inquiries against Dhumal including the one related to jobs recommended by the chief minister’s office. Virbhadra also enacted the HP Sports Bill to take control of the HPCA headed by Dhumal’s son Anurag Thakur.
The Vigilance Probe
After the reversal of roles when Dhumal wrested power in 2007, he also took little time to repeal the bill. It was during this period that another estranged colleague of Virbhadra, Major Vijay Singh Mankotia (incidentally, he has again mended fences with him), released an audio CD in which Virbhadra Singh is purportedly talking about some money deals. On the basis of these CDs, Dhumal ordered a vigilance probe which registered an FIR against Virbhadra in 2009 even as he had by then become Union steel minister.
Virbhadra resigned as chief minister in 2012 after a court framed charges against him. However, he applied pressure on his party to let him lead the campaign for the assembly elections. Despite reluctance on the part of the Congress high command, and opposition from some state leaders, Virbhadra was asked to lead the campaign after he threatened to join the Sharad Pawar-led NCP and contest elections on that party’s symbol.
As it happened, he engineered a Congress victory after it had suffered a string of defeats and its stock was falling. Incidentally, a day before he was to take over as chief minister, the court acquitted him of corruption charges in the CD case.
Not one to take things lying down, Virbhadra again ordered the vigilance bureau and the Anti-Corruption Bureau to probe all charges against Dhumal and his family members. In one of the first actions, the state cabinet decided to cancel the land lease granted by the Dhumal government to the HPCA with the government taking control of the Dharamsala stadium. HPCA filed a petition and the court not only passed strictures against the government but also asked it to hand over the stadium to the HPCA.
The government retaliated by letting the vigilance bureau file three FIRs against the HPCA, Dhumal and his sons. Some other cases have also been filed against Dhumal. So the CBI PE Is definitely not the last one can expect to hear in the Virbhadra-Dhumal saga.
While Virbhadra has dismissed the CBI PE as ana cut of ‘political vendetta’, he may find the noose around him getting tighter with the Enforcement Directorate also roped in to look into his sources of income and assets. He had the distinct advantage of having a UPA government at the Centre when the allegations surfaced, but the BJP by no means is going to let him have a free run till the next assembly elections.
(The writer is a Chandigarh-based veteran journalist)
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