Theog’s 2017 curve-ball remains a headache for infighting-riven BJP, Congress in Himachal

Theog, considered a prestigious seat owing to its location close to state capital Shimla, poses a curve-ball for both leading contenders in the state, the ruling BJP and the Congress. Sitting MLA Rakesh Singha is from the CPI(M), a party with negligible electoral presence across the state but with a consistent presence in college and university union elections, considered by many as the ‘nursery league’ to the ‘real’ thing.

Both the BJP and Congress have fielded first-timers, but they are playing catch-up with the state’s lone Left MLA. Far from being a Left stronghold, though, Theog (Kumarsain before delimitation in 2012) was the pocketborough of former Congress leader and horticulture baronnes, the 83-year-old eight-time MLA Vidya Stokes, whose family has maintained close ties with Sonia Gandhi and also has good equations with the CPI(M) leader’s family.

Singha’s surprise 2017 victory was attributed to Congress infighting, with even then-CM Virbhadra Singh allegedly supporting him. In a 2017 rally, Singha was heard appealing to the people to pluck the saffron flower (“Kamal ka phool”, the BJP’s symbol), if not by hand (the Congress symbol), then by cutting it with the sickle (the CPI-M symbol). He eventually won with 24,791 votes, followed by the BJP’s Rakesh Verma with 22,808 and the Congress’s Deepak Rathore with a paltry 9,101.

This time around, the Congress has fielded former PCC president Kuldeep Rathore, a loyalist of former Union minister Anand Sharma. Rathore is also close to Vidya Stokes. The BJP has fielded Ajay Shayam, a local. Both are new to electoral politics.

Congress rebel Vijay Pal Khachi, son of former state Cabinet minister J B L Khachi, is also in the fray as an Independent. But that’s not the end of Theog’s long history of infighting. Former MLA Rakesh Verma’s widow, Indu Verma, is contesting as an Independent. Indu had left the BJP recently to join the Congress, but when denied its ticket, she filed her nomination as an Independent. With the Verma family having a sizable votebank in the seat, this could potentially put both the BJP and Congress in trouble.

However, Singha is happy. He claims Indu Verma contesting as an Independent suits him. Once again, he is depending on cross-voting from the BJP and Congress rebels to take him home, but as the sitting MLA, he is focused on the constituency’s main issues—horticulture, roads and lack of functional staff in government offices.

The Congress’s Rathore is a long-time organisation man, though fighting his first election. It was under his presidency that the Congress won all four seats (three in the Assembly, one in the Lok Sabha) in the 2021 bypolls. With many factions in the local unit, his success will depend on consolidating the Congress votes. If he manages that, it will be tough for Singha.

Rathore is claiming that the party’s Theog unit is united, adding that even Vidya Stokes has appealed for a vote in favour of the Congress, though she won’t join the campaign due to failing health. For him, lack of development in the past four-and-a-half years, and the BJP government’s “neglect” of apple growers, are the main issues.

The BJP’s Ajay Shayam hit the limelight after he lodged at the Kumarsain police station one of the several FIRs filed in tandem across the country against national TV news anchor Vinod Dua. Along with other local issues, he is pushing for the renovation of old temples here, and was heard saying, “Devsthalon ka vikas karwana hai, yahan par Mahabharat kaal ke samay ke kai pracheen mandir hai (We have to renovate the many sacred sites that have stood here since the time of the Mahabharata).”

When asked if the BJP’s late allotment of the ticket for the constituency will affect his chances, he said although an earlier announcement would have been better for his campaign, the BJP is still in a comfortable position. Regarding the BJP rebels, he said they had left the party long ago, and would hence have little impact.

Indu Verma, the widow of former MLA Rakesh Verma, is banking on family legacy for her bid as an Independent. Her husband had defeated Vidya Stokes to remain a three-time MLA from the seat.

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