Himachal Pradesh: Sukhu does a balancing act; expands cabinet with 7 ministers
Nearly a month after he was sworn-in as chief minister of Himachal Pradesh, Sukhwinder Singh Sukhu finally expanded his cabinet, on Sunday (January 8). Himachal Pradesh Governor RV Arlekar administered the oath of office to seven Congress MLAs – Harshvardhan Chauhan, Dhani Ram Shandil, Jagat Negi, Anirudh Singh, Rohit, Thakur, Chander Kumar and Vikramaditya Singh – as members of new council of ministers. Additionally, Sukhu has also inducted six party MLAs as chief parliamentary secretaries.
The expansion, which still leaves three cabinet berths vacant to placate any potential rebels in the future, ends a month-long stalemate over cabinet formation between Sukhu and his intra-party rival Pratibha Singh, Congress’s Himachal Pradesh chief and widow of former six-time CM Virbhadra Singh. Along with Sukhu and deputy chief minister Mukesh Agnihotri, the seven ministers now part of the state cabinet and the six newly appointed parliamentary secretaries, represent various regions and castes of Himachal as also the two key factions within the Congress.
Whether this balancing act would be enough for Sukhu to deliver a stable government in the only state that the Congress has won since 2019 is difficult to predict. The challenges before Sukhu are many. In the 68-member assembly, the Congress has won 40 seats against the BJP’s 25 while independents – all BJP rebels – had won the remaining three seats in the poll results declared on December 8. The Congress, thus, has a slender majority of just five seats in the Assembly; something that both Sukhu and his party know needs to be heavily guarded against predictable attempts of poaching by the BJP as well as dissentions by MLAs loyal to Pratibha Singh.
By including Vikramaditya Singh, Pratibha’s son and two-term MLA from Shimla (Rural), in the cabinet, the Congress has tried to pacify the state Congress chief after snubbing her chief ministerial aspirations last month. Additionally, Agnihotri, who was sworn-in as deputy CM along with Sukhu on December 11, is also a Virbhadra protégé as are six-term MLA Chander Kumar and five-term MLA Jagat Singh Negi.
Sukhu has also succeeded in securing cabinet berths for his closest aides Harshvardhan Chauhan, six-term MLA from Shillai, member of the Koti royal family and three-term MLA from Kasumpti, Anirudh Singh as well as Rohit Thakur, second-term MLA from Jubbal-Kotkhai and grandson of former chief minister Thakur Ram Lal.
Though Sukhu could not secure a cabinet berth for his staunch loyalists, Ghumarwin MLA Rajesh Dharmani and Kullu MLA Surinder Singh Thakur, he signalled his stamp on the new government in the selection of the new parliamentary secretaries. Surinder Thakur and Arki MLA Sanjay Awasthi, both Sukhu loyalists, were appointed parliamentary secretaries.
Anticipating resentment from Kangra, the state’s largest district that gave the Congress 10 of its 40 MLAs, against poor representation in the cabinet, Sukhu also inducted two parliamentary secretaries – Palampur MLA Ashish Butail and Baijnath MLA Kishori Lal – from Kangra.
The 82-year-old Solan MLA, Dhani Ram Shandil, oldest member of the cabinet, has reportedly made it to the cabinet on the strength of his seniority in the party and his long innings as a general secretary of the All India Congress Committee.
Though regional representation in the newly formed cabinet appears disproportionally tilted in favour of Shimla – Vikramaditya, Anirudh and Rohit all represent constituencies in Shimla district – Sukhu has inducted one minister each from the state’s Solan (Shandil), Kangra (Kumar), Sirmaur (Chauhan) and Kinnaur (Negi) districts. Sukhu and Agnihotri hail from the Hamirpur and Una districts, respectively. As such, the cabinet gives a fair representation to both Upper and Lower Himachal districts.
However, in terms of caste-representation, the cabinet is heavily tilted in favour of the dominant Thakur community with four of the newly inducted ministers belonging to this group. Sukhu, like all previous CMs of Himachal with the exception of Shanta Kumar, too belongs to the Thakur community, while deputy CM Agnihotri is a Brahmin by caste. The Scheduled Caste, Scheduled Tribe, OBC communities will be represented through Shandil, Negi and Kumar, respectively.
Sukhu’s next big challenge will be to now ensure that Pratibha and her loyalists do not rock the party’s government moving forward. He has kept three cabinet berths vacant, which may come in handy if and when some MLA threatens to go rogue. Placating Pratibha is also crucial for the Congress’s 2024 Lok Sabha polls.
As the torchbearer of Virbhadra’s legacy, Pratibha – and also her son Vikramaditya – continue to hold significant clout in Upper Himachal, a region that has traditionally favoured the Congress. The party has tried to add parts of Lower Himachal, where the BJP is relatively stronger, to its kitty by betting on Sukhu and Agnihotri (both MLAs from Lower Himachal districts) as the CM and deputy CM, but it can’t leave sight of its erstwhile strongholds in Upper Himachal where Virbhadra’s name still has currency.
Moving forward, Sukhu will need to constantly humour Pratibha and her loyalists, something he has proved inept at in the past given his combative street-fighting political style that had established him as Virbhadra’s principal inner-party rival in the first place.