End Of An Era: Demise Of Six Time CM Virbhadra Singh

K S Tomar

K S Tomar

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Virbhadra Singh ruled the hearts of people.

The doyen of Himachal politics is no more. Virbhadra Singh, 87, a winner on numerous occasions in a long and eventful political career, finally lost his battle for life to post-COVID complications after he had overcome the deadly virus twice in the recent months.

virAddressed as ‘Raja Sahib’ out of affection and respect, the nine-time MLA, five-time Lok Sabha MP, Union cabinet minister, and six-time Chief Minister had come to forge a unique bond, which all politicians aspire for but few manage to achieve, with masses across the state.

Virbhadra Singh set out to rule the hearts of people. His seemingly effortless, unmatched electoral triumphs clearly indicate that he was able to achieve this goal many times over during his life time.

Singh, who breathed his last in the wee hours of July 8 at Shimla’s Indira Gandhi Medical College, was one of the senior most active politicians in India. His political journey started in 1962 and he remained energetic till the end.

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Virbhadra Singh with Sonia Gandhi

I have fond personal memories of Raja Sahib. My association with him dates back to 1980 when I was a struggling journalist and worked in a largely non-existent newspaper published now and then from Shimla.

I distinctly remember my first meeting with Virbhadra at his official MP residence, AB 20, Mathura Road, Delhi.

During those days, Himachal Bhawan near Mandi House was the favorite place of stay for struggling journalists. Unfortunately, my request for a room was denied by Himachal Bhawan officials because I was not an accredited correspondent.

Caught in a difficult situation, someone suggested that I should meet Virbhadra and seek his intervention. My narrative of helplessness touched his kind heart.

Injecting a small dose of his well known wit, he jokingly asked me, “Who the hell advised you to aspire to become a journalist in an English newspaper. Doesn’t he know that you belong to a backward village of Sirmaur district and have a Hindi background?

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Virbhadra Singh with Rahul Gandhi

On my part, I was blunt and did not mince words while showing my determination to achieve my goal. I assured him that I was ready for the long haul and fully prepared to do whatever it took. Seemingly, my response impressed him.

For I got a permanent place of stay, with the added luxury of breakfast, lunch and dinner, at his house whenever I visited Delhi to meet editors of English dailies in my quest for a permanent job.

Coincidentally, I started contributing to The Tribune soon after. A year later, in 1983, I was selected as a regular correspondent in Hindustan Times, posted at Amritsar to cover the peak of terrorism in Punjab. Terrorism effectively ended my saga of free boarding and lodging at Virbhadra’s Mathura Road residence.

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With Dr Manmohan Singh

Singh was specially chosen by Pandit Nehru (or was it Shastri ji?) to join politics. Nehru asked him to contest from Shimla seat. Singh bagged it with ease and became the youngest MP (28 years) in the third Lok Sabha.

Virbhadra liked narrating events such as these, while travelling on foot (there were no jeepable roads during those times) in Lahaul- Spiti and tribal villages of Kinnaur during election campaigns.

He always remembered the details. During one of his talks, he told me about the visit of Indian delegation, under the leadership of Atal Bihari Vajpayee, to UN. He quipped that it could only be made possible by a dynamic leader like Mrs India Gandhi, who nominated Vajpayee, despite latter being a leader of the opposition party.

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Rajiv Gandhi and Virbhadra Singh

Virbhadra Singh was directed to join state politics in Himachal Pradesh by Mrs Gandhi. He was asked to take over following the resignation of then Chief Minister Thakur Ram Lal on account of the infamous forest scam in 1983.

He recalled with a sense of pride that Mrs Gandhi had chided him when he requested her to name the individual leaders who would constitute the state’s council of ministers. She wanted him to have a free hand to pick the right people.

Mrs Gandhi asked him to pick his team and she would send him a message if she disagreed with him.

Virbhadra Singh studied at BCS Shimla and St Stephen Delhi. Despite an elitist education and background, modesty and a courteous behavior remained the hallmarks of his life.

He loved simple things. At times he would go out alone to visit the Bata Shop at Connaught Place in Delhi and pick up the pairs of shoes.

Powered by his tremendous popularity among the masses, Singh never hesitated in calling a spade a spade even if it led to defiance of diktats issued by the ‘high command’.

With Pandit Sukh Ram

This was seen in 1992 when late Prime Minister Narasimha Rao was out to anoint former Union Telecom minister Pandit Sukh Ram as Chief Minister of Himachal Pradesh.

Virbhadra and his loyalists challenged the central observers led by former Punjab CM Darbara Singh, who ultimately declare him as leader of the elected MLAs. A repeat of this incident took place in 2002 and the high command had to relent – once again.

Singh’s penchant for forthrightness again came to the fore in 2012. He felt slighted as he believed that the then high command had belittled him by appointing the much junior Anand Sharma, once a Virbhadra acolyte who had turned against him and was a part of G-23 brigade, as a Union Cabinet Minister holding the important portfolios of commerce and industry.

Singh shared with me that it was painful and to see a turncoat, someone whom he had groomed in politics, being preferred over him. Hence, he decided to exhibit his displeasure with an aggressive political retaliation.

Backed by his popularity at the grass root level, Virbhadra decided to to contest the 2012 HP Assembly polls under the banner of Nationalist Congress Party led by Sharad Pawar. He chose to go with NCP, as didn’t have any time left to register a new political party with the election commission.

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Virbhadra Singh with PM Narendra Modi

Word about this development soon reached Mrs Sonia Gandhi’s office. To her credit, she relented and sent late Ahmed Patel to Virbhadra’s residence at midnight to dissuade him from going ahead with his plans.

Mrs Gandhi ultimately agreed to appoint Singh as state Congress chief and lead the party in the assembly polls. The Congress party went on to win the elections and Virbhadra Singh was appointed Chief Minister.

It came as kind of a shock to me when I received a telephone call from Singh at 6 AM on June 21,2013. I was then working as Senior Associate Editor and in-charge of Rajasthan edition of Hindustan Times at Jaipur.

During our conversation, he humorously remarked “Sirmauri Bhai, Aap Ko Mainnain Public service commission Ka chairman Niyukt Karnain Ka Faisla Kar Liya Hai” (I have decided to appoint you as chairman of HP Public Service Commission).

It was a huge opportunity to serve my state hence I decided to move on though my tenure was still safe with my organization.

My last meeting with him took place at Holly Lodge, his private residence in Shimla, prior to the first attack of Covid.

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Writer with EX CM and the then Governor Mrs Urmila Singh after being sworn in as Chairman of the HPPSC.

He was extremely happy over my re-joining of journalism as a columnist contributing in six national newspapers of India, especially when he failed in his efforts as CM to give me a responsibility of Chief Information Commission (CIC).

He said that I had been hugely rewarded by Almighty God as destiny had carved out a bigger role for me and after spending 40 years in profession of journalism, none could snatch it away.

Singh had a strong humanitarian instinct. He drove immense satisfaction from meeting the public besides being addicted to file work, which re-energized him.

Here is one memorable instance of a case involving two sisters case who belonged to a needy and poverty-stricken RSS family. The sisters reached Holly Lodge at 5 AM to meet Singh, without any appointment. The security staff on duty asked them to wait at the reception and a message was sent to the CM after one hour.

He called them to his drawing room upstairs where he used to clear pending files. They could not believe their luck when they came face to face with him hence started crying, which brought tears to his eyes as well. He ordered the staff to first bring tea and breakfast for them before listening to their grievances.

With A P J Abdul Kalam

Later, one of them informed him about her inability to pay the requisite fee to attend the Nursing College at Nalagarh in Solan district, where she doing a course. The other girl was attending a government training institute but faced an identical crisis.

Singh instructed his private secretary to send a cheque every month from his personal account in the bank branch at Mall Road to the Nursing college till the completion of her course.

The principal of the Government Training Institute was directed to waive off the fee of 2nd sister. Finally, he handed over money from his pocket to so that the girls could travel back to their home. Later, both girls found employment as well with the help of Singh, who by then was an ex-CM.

Can any political leader dream of doing such philanthropy works that too when victims belong to a die hard political opponent? The answer is a Big NO, but Singh was different.

Similarly, one old woman was spotted by him in district Una in 2016 when his caravan passed through a hamlet.

Later he told me that it took him a few seconds to realize that someone with an umbrella and white paper in her hand was waiting for him.

He asked his security staff to reverse his vehicle and got down to meet the poor woman who narrated an unfortunate incident involving torture and murder of her young son. She said the Police had tried to hush up the case as influential politicians were trying to protect the criminals.

The Superintendent of Police was directed to solve the case within three days and arrest the culprits, which was effectively done.

In his public dealings, Singh had an immense sense of judgement in drawing the line between the genuine and fake applicants who narrated their woes to him during Public ‘darbar’.

In one instance near a temple in Kangra district, a poor woman was crying at the top of her voice seeking immediate financial help. Virbhadra took out his wallet on the spur of the moment and gave the entire money to her.

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Writer with Virbhadra at his residence Holly Lodge Shimla during happier days.

At the same time, a seemingly clever person in the crowd also started weeping and sought help from the CM. Instead of immediate action, he directed officials to inquire into his problem and report back to him.

A senior journalist witnessed the drama and asked the CM as to why he did not order immediate help to the person?

He said “I have this gift of judgment between genuine and fake. I am able to judge each case logically, otherwise anyone can take me for a ride everyday”. He had sensed something amiss in this case which was found true after verification by the officials.

Any regrets in life? Singh didn’t have any, but he told me that he did have one.

Politics in the present times were not suitable and were not really meant for honest, genuine and committed persons.

Political leaders were led by Machiavellian principle and believed in ‘End only and not Means’ to make money and capture power. Service of people had become secondary as it was completely off the plate.

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Royalty in Indian politics

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K S Tomar

K S Tomar

The writer, a senior political analyst, is a former Editor of the Hindustan Times' Rajasthan edition and has spent nearly four decades in journalism, including a six year stint in Nepal where he covered Sino-India-Nepal complex relationship and had a ringside seat to the Himalayan Kingdom's transition into democracy.

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