It has barely been a month into office, and the Sukhwinder Sukkhu-led Congress government in Himachal Pradesh has already been cornered on many fronts.
Be it in fulfilling their own promises or tackling a major economic crisis facing the government, Sukkhu has already been pushed to the edge.
Problems, they say, come in hordes. This adage seems to have cursed the honeymoon period of Sukkhu’s government.
The inability to form a cabinet till yesterday (8 January) has been a rather embarrassing ‘achievement’ of the government.
Given the fact that there were 10 ministerial positions to be fulfilled, the headache of balancing both regional and factional aspirations would have been plaguing both the government and the party.
Pratibha Singh and her son Vikramaditya were reported to be virtually breathing down the Chief Minister’s neck. Vikramaditya was eventually inducted into the Cabinet yesterday. But the pressure that he and his mother created was likely one of the reasons that Chief Minister Sukkhu chose to play safe and sought the high command’s approval for the names he had proposed.
That Vikramaditya has been playing up the Virbhadra Singh and Hindu sentiment with ‘Jai Shri Ram’ and his father’s videos on his social media handles had not been lost on anyone. Was it a hint of him breaking away and joining forces with the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) if he had not been accommodated? Only Tikka sahab can answer this question. What it did ensure was that Chief Minister Sukkhu could not ignore him.
If that was not enough, the government has been fumbling on the question of reinstating the Old Pension Scheme (OPS).
Starting with statements from veteran leader Anand Sharma, who also hails from Himachal Pradesh to Sukkhu’s constant refrain of approving the scheme in the first cabinet meeting, that has so far failed to materialise, several gaffes have already been committed.
Adding to the gaggle is former UPA (United Progressive Alliance) era adviser and erstwhile Planning Commission Vice Chairman Montek Singh Ahluwalia’s criticism of the OPS, calling it “a recipe for financial bankruptcy”. His rare moment of sagacity, however, seems to have no takers within the Congress, given its obsession in Rajasthan and Chhattisgarh with this non-starter.
The Adani-Trucker Face Off
Even though there was no cabinet till 8 January, a massive face off in Darla Ghat and Gagal between the truckers union and Adani Cements Limited was causing massive disaffection across the state, especially in Shimla and Bilaspur.
Trucker unions have been insistent that they will not lower their fares from the Rs 10 per kilogram cement carried, whereas the Adani plant has been asking them to lower the same to Rs 6, as anything above it makes their plant operations unviable.
The local administration tried getting the parties to sit across the table and sort it out via dialogue; however, the truckers have shown no intent of seeking middle ground, even boasting about how they successfully stopped other truckers from outside Himachal Pradesh to reach Nalagarh.
What is rather baffling is the fact that calling it the BJP’s revenge for losing the Himachal elections seems to be the easy way out that the Congress supporters and the trucker unions seem to have found. Such indefensible logic fails to explain why any business would want to operate at losses.
To be fair, even the Jairam Thakur-led BJP government had struggled on the question of reducing the transport cost, which directly affects cement prices within the state. However, the step by the new government’s Industries Department to issue notice for ‘unilaterally’ closing the plant has only managed to reinforce the sentiment that the state’s investment climate is certainly not a welcoming one.
The problem remains. Truckers are refusing to read the cement market situation and not realising that remaining uncompetitive will not achieve anything but permanent closure.
In a state that has serious unemployment issues, the closure of Adani Cements’ plants only accentuates the problem. Such a situation can easily boomerang and create a Singur-like moment for the state, a scenario that none would ever wish on the state of Himachal Pradesh.
That the Singur disaster created a major global embarrassment for the UPA government is clearly weighing on the minds of the Congress party as well. There are also murmurs that failure to achieve any resolution would lead to terrible electoral prospects for the Congress in 2024. This is a scenario that the Congress would not want to suffer, given how Congress leaders have been sharing the dais with Gautam Adani and Adani too was found praising earlier Congress prime ministers.
Given the already shrill diatribes of Rahul Gandhi on ‘Adani-Ambani’ and ‘Suit Boot Sarkaar', this cement plant closure was an embarrassment the Congress believes it could have avoided altogether.
The honeymoon period of the Congress government in Himachal Pradesh government is nowhere to be found. Chief Minister Sukkhu seems to be fighting a lonely battle, with no real support coming from anywhere within the party’s quarters.
Will the cabinet formation bring some relief with a distribution of the responsibility?
The cushion in the Chief Minister’s chair is turning out to be a bag of troubles for him though.
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