Virbhadra Singh proves his mettle again

Shimla, June 30 (IANS) Ahead of the 2014 general elections, Himachal Pradesh Chief Minister Virbhadra Singh Sunday once again proved his mettle by ensuring that his Congress party retains the Mandi Lok Sabha seat and with a handsome margin too.

The victory comes within six months of the party wresting power from the Bharatiya Janata Party in the hill state under his leadership and forming the government after the assembly elections.

Congress candidate and Virbhadra Singh's wife Pratibha Singh won the Mandi parliamentary bypoll by defeating her nearest rival Jai Ram Thakur, a BJP legislator and former cabinet minister, by 136,724 votes.

Pratibha Singh polled 353,492 out of a total 582,249 votes cast, whereas Thakur got 216,768.

Political observers said the victory has shown that there is no anti-incumbency factor and once again proved that Virbhadra Singh is a charismatic leader, who led his party's victory in the assembly elections in December 2012.

"Of course, the Congress got the benefit of being in power in the state. But despite that, the margin of the victory proves that people acknowledged the return of Virbhadra Singh to the helm again for the sixth time," an observer said.

Congress leaders said the chief minister single-handedly campaigned in the entire constituency, one of the biggest in the country that spreads across the tribal-dominated Kinnaur and Lahaul and Spiti districts.

Former cabinet minister Harsh Mahajan told IANS: "Despite remaining marooned for almost three days in Sangla (in Kinnaur), where the entire road and communication network was snapped, the chief minister headed straight into campaigning on being rescued from there."

Virbhadra Singh, who remained stranded in Sangla for over 60 hours owing to torrential rains and flash floods, was air-lifted June 18.

The chief minister held more than 90 meetings in just 20 days of his aggressive campaigning, said Mahajan.

"His only aim was to retain the seat with a comfortable margin and to silence his critics within the party. And he managed to do so," Mahajan added.

An observer said Virbhadra Singh also overcame criticism from the rival party.

"The BJP was gunning for him. It was saying that the chief minister was interested more in campaigning for his wife rather than monitoring relief and rehabilitation work in rain-hit Kinnaur," said an observer.

But despite his hectic schedule, the 78-year-old, popularly known as 'Raja Saab' as he was born heir into the erstwhile princely state of Bushahr, visited rain-ravaged areas again June 21, ahead of polling, with the permission of the Election Commission to review the rescue work, he said.

"I am a sincere party worker. The high command gave me some responsibility and I did my job with full dedication," Virbhadra Singh told IANS on phone from Delhi.

Industries Minister Mukesh Agnihotri said out of 17 assembly segments of the Mandi constituency, the Congress candidate secured lead in 16 segments.

"This has been possible due to the charismatic personality of Virbhadra Singh," he said.

The septuagenarian, who has served as chief minister for over 16 years, dismissed rumours about his ill-health and told reporters in Shimla a few days ago: "I am fit and fine. I am not heading abroad to get myself treated."

Virbhadra Singh won the Mandi seat in 2009 by a slender margin of over 13,000 votes by defeating Maheshwar Singh. At that time, the BJP was ruling the state.

The Congress had denied a ticket to his wife Pratibha Singh from Kasumpti in the December assembly elections. That was the second time she had been denied a ticket.

In 2009, she failed to get a party ticket for the assembly by-election in Rohru, the seat vacated by her husband after he shifted to New Delhi by winning the Lok Sabha election.

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