Asha Kumari: After ‘Raja’ Virbhadra, a ‘Rani’ in the fray for Himachal Pradesh CM’s post

On a sunny winter afternoon, a group of villagers at Birwari, a picturesque hill village in the far-flung Salooni sub-division of Dalhousie constituency, wait for local Congress MLA Asha Kumari (67), better known as “Asha Rani” among her voters.

“Asha Kumari sab pe bhaari,” reads the slogan on badges put up by Congress workers on their chests and on the paper cups in which tea is served to villagers waiting for her arrival.

Clad in a blue salwar kameez with a dupatta covering her head, she is soon welcomed with garlands. Hugging women and greeting men with folded hands, she smiles her way through to the raised platform under the huge tree.

Soon a man in a loudspeaker-mounted vehicle announces: “Yaad rakhiye, 12 November ka din hoga, haath ka button dabana hai, Asha Kumari ko bhaari maton se jitaana hai…aur Himachal ka CM banana hai…(Do remember, the day will be November 12, you have to press the ‘Hand’ button, make Asha win with a heavy majority and make her the CM of Himachal…)”.

Six-time MLA from Dalhousie (four times from erstwhile Banikhet constituency and two times from Dalhousie) and now contesting her ninth consecutive election, Asha Kumari, after late ‘Raja’ Virbhadra Singh, who was also her maternal uncle, is another erstwhile royal family scion in contention to be Himachal’s chief minister.

Born into the royal clan of Sarguja of undivided Madhya Pradesh, and married into the royal family of Chamba princely state, Kumari’s foray into politics began with the National Students’ Union of India in Bhopal. She is a graduate of Arts from Bhopal University.

Her father, late Mandeshwar Saran Singh Deo, was the former chief secretary of Madhya Pradesh. She was married to the late ‘Rajkumar’ Brijendra Singh of Chamba. Both her mother and mother-in-law (coincidentally both named Devendra Kumari) were Congress MLAs in undivided MP and HP, respectively. Her elder brother, TS Singh Deo, Congress MLA from Ambikapur, is the current health minister of Chhattisgarh, and is campaigning for her in Dalhousie.

In her ninth election, Kumari who has always taken pride in her royal family lineage “which worked for the welfare of people”, subtly reminds the voters that she is also from a “rajgharana (royal family)” and a vote for her will also mean “shraddhanjali (tribute)” to late Virbhadra Singh.

“You people gave me a chance to be your representative six times…we made schools, colleges, hospitals…all under the tenure of late Virbhadra Singh ji…hum aapke paas apne kaam ka vote maangne aaye hain (we are here to ask for votes for the work we did),” she tells villagers at Birwari, a village where the government primary school is still a casualty due to lack of teachers.

Soon, she targets the BJP, and interacting with women sitting in the audience, says: “Par hum wo kaam nahi karenge jo inhone kia…Khush ho ab cylinder 1,200 ka hoyi gaya na? Khush ho? Abhi to 1200 ho huya hai, paanch saal aur dedo, 2000 ka ho jayega. Sarson ka tel, lag gaya tadka? Pehli baar Angrezon ke baad, atta, dal, chawal pe bhi tax laga..” (But we won’t do what BJP has done. Are you happy now that a cylinder costs Rs 1,200. Give them five more years and it will reach Rs 2,000…For the first time, after British rule, basic groceries are being taxed).

She then invokes Virbhadra and says: “It is only a leader like Virbhadra ji who can think about the poor. He ensured that the poor get groceries every month. Wo yahan nahi hai par unki aatma yahin hai.. (He is not here but his soul is here)…Vikas ke saath, aapka vote unko shraddhanjali ka vote hoga (Your vote will not only be for development but also a tribute to Virbhadra Singh)..”

Known to be close to Sonia Gandhi, the two-time former minister says that it is “only because of farsightedness of Sonia Gandhi and former PM Manmohan Singh that the poor could survive Covid and earn a livelihood with MNREGS”.

Pitted against her again is Dhavinder Singh Thakur (55) of BJP, a stone-crusher contractor whom she had defeated by a wafer-thin margin of just 556 votes in 2017.

Kumari, who mostly stays at her Jandrighat Palace in Dalhousie, is calling it a fight of “jan bal vs dhan bal” or people power versus money power. Ironically, she is among the few moneybag candidates in the Himachal Pradesh polls this time who has hired Chandigarh-based DesignBoxed, a political digital campaign management company, to manage her campaign.

“Main raj gharane se hu, mera bhi ek vote hai aur aapka bhi…aap janbal ke saath hain ya dhanbal ke saath? (I am from a royal family but we all have equal power of casting our vote. Are you with the one who enjoys people power or with the one who has money power?),” she says, targeting BJP candidate Thakur.

In reality, when it comes to money power, both Kumari and Thakur are crorepatis. While Thakur, who owns a stone-crushing firm and is a government contractor with the Himachal Pradesh PWD department, has assets of over Rs 15 crore, Kumari owns assets of over Rs 5.40 crore.

Kumari’s supporters are also targeting Thakur with posters titled “DS ya OPS?”, referring to D S Thakur and the One Pension Scheme.

In tourist hub Dalhousie, with a limited vote share of the total electorate in the constituency, shopkeepers and locals feel that Kumari has failed to address their issues because a majority of the votes are from villages (stretching till the J&K border), not the town. “Despite being a British-era famous hill station, problems here are just increasing for tourists and locals. Parking, garbage, pollution, roads, every issue is here. Her focus is always on villages, not the town which has just around 6,000 votes,” said a local shopkeeper.

Also, Kumari, who was the former AICC in-charge of Punjab affairs, is close to former Punjab Chief Minister Captain Amarinder Singh, now in BJP. She has also had her own share of controversies. Kumari was convicted in a land grab case by a Chamba court in 2016, and her appeal against the conviction is now pending in the high court. In 2017, she slapped an on-duty woman police official in Shimla when she was stopped from meeting Rahul Gandhi. The police official slapped her back. Kumari later apologised.

Earlier at Diur, the ‘humble Rani’ sat on the ground with villagers to have lunch but instead preferred her own home-packed meal over daal-bhaat.

Speaking to The Indian Express on her way from Diur to Birwari, Kumari said that Virbhadra Singh was her “mentor” and she was his “prodigy” and that he is still the face of Congress in Himachal Pradesh. “But when he is no more alive, another leader has to emerge and become the CM.”

“Of course, I am the second senior-most MLA after Kaul Singh Thakur (eight-time MLA from Mandi’s Drang), and the only woman to win six times. I have immense faith in Sonia Gandhi and it is for the party to decide my next role. I am a prodigy of Virbhadra ji, we all in HP Congress are,” she says.

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