"We're dead sure that we are going to win," Himachal Pradesh Congress Committee president Pratibha Singh says emphatically.
"We will defeat them (BJP) and that will be the beginning of the BJP's decline across the nation," she told The Quint.
In a freewheeling conversation with The Quint, Pratibha Singh discussed a number of aspects related to the Congress party's campaign in Himachal Pradesh, including the crucial question of who the party's CM face will be and also the current status of senior leader Anand Sharma, who recently resigned as chairman of the Congress' steering committee for the Himachal Pradesh elections.
'We'll Fight the Elections in Virbhadra Singh's Name'
Since the late 1980s, Virbhadra Singh had been the unquestioned face of the Congress in Himachal Pradesh. His passing away in 2021 has left a leadership void in the Congress in the hill state.
Presently, the Congress has a number of leaders, influential in their own respective areas – Mukesh Agnihotri in Una district, Sukhwinder Sukhu in Hamirpur, Asha Kumari in Dalhousie, Dhani Ram Shandil in Solan, and Kaul Singh Thakur in parts of Mandi district. However, none of the leaders have the kind of state-wide popularity that Virbhadra Singh enjoyed.
The former CM's political legacy is being carried forward by Pratibha Singh, his wife, as well as his son Vikramaditya Singh, an MLA from Shimla Rural. Besides being the Himachal Congress chief, Pratibha Singh is the MP from Mandi Lok Sabha seat, having won an important bypoll last year.
The void following Virbhadra Singh's death gave rise to a tussle within the state unit on who should be the party's main face in the state.
On being asked who the party's CM face would be, Pratibha Singh said, "We will fight the elections in the name of Virbhadra Singh."
"We will fight the elections on the Virbhadra Singh model. He has done a lot of work for Himachal. Log unko itni jaldi bhulana nahi chahte, aur na bhulayenge (People don't want to forget him so soon and they won't)."Pratibha Singh, HP Congress president
"People themselves say 'who are these other faces in the poster? We don't want to see these other faces, bring Virbhadra Singh's face only then we'll come.' It's clear they only want to hear about Virbhadra Singh model," she emphasised.
However, she did say that the party would fight the elections under a collective leadership.
"We will fight under a collective leadership to avoid any infighting and heartburns. Then let's see when the time comes," she said.Pratibha Singh, Himachal Pradesh Congress president
On Anand Sharma and Infighting Within HP Congress
She blames kheech-taan or infighting within the Congress for the massive defeat in the previous Assembly election, but says that this has been addressed to some extent ahead of the upcoming elections.
"We have tried our best. When you are in a race, someone races ahead while someone gets left behind," she said.
She dismissed the exit of two MLAs – Pawan Kajal and Lakhwinder Rana – from the Congress to the BJP, as "opportunism of two MLAs who had come from the BJP."
Senior leader Anand Sharma, who was also an important part of the group of 23 leaders who wrote a letter criticising the functioning within the party, recently quit as chairman of the party's steering committee for the Himachal Pradesh elections. He is known to be particularly close to Ghulam Nabi Azad, who recently quit the Congress.
On being asked whether Sharma is in or out of the party, Pratibha Singh said, "He is a tall leader. We can't trouble him for small meetings. Gali koocho mein tou nahi ghuma sakte unhe (We can't make him travel to every street and bylane). When there's something big enough, we'll call him and he'll come."
The Build-Up to the Assembly Elections
The Himachal Pradesh Assembly elections are due in December this year. The BJP, led by CM Jai Ram Thakur, is facing anti-incumbency which had led to the party's defeat in crucial bypolls in 2021. Unemployment, in particular, is a major political issue in the state.
However, the Congress' defeats in Punjab and Uttarakhand – both states neighbouring Himachal Pradesh – may have harmed its momentum.
Pratibha Singh, however, says that the situation in HP is unrelated to the other two states.
"The situation is very different. There is a lot of anger against Jai Ram Thakur's government. Our leadership in the state is very strong," she said.
On being asked how the Congress plans to address unemployment in Himachal Pradesh, Pratibha Singh said, "We will have to figure out a way. It is not going to be easy. Jobs can't be created on a platter. We have also promised to increase recruitment in government jobs."