New Delhi: Many remember the late Sukh Ram, or ‘Pandit ji’ as he was known, as the man who ushered in the telecom revolution by launching the first cellular service in India as then Union minister for telecom in the 1990s.
But in his home state of Himachal Pradesh, Sukh Ram’s name became synonymous with party-hopping, with his bête noire and six-time former chief minister, the late Virbhadra Singh, even referring to him as the “Aaya Ram, Gaya Ram” of Himachal politics.
Sukh Ram, who passed away in May this year at 94 after having suffered a brain stroke, held considerable sway in Mandi which happens to be Chief Minister Jairam Thakur’s home district.
His grandson Aashray Sharma, a general secretary of the Himachal Pradesh Congress, resigned from the party last week and, according to a source in the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), is now knocking on their doors ahead of assembly elections in the hill state.
Sukh Ram’s son Anil Sharma, a BJP MLA, was seen making overtures to the Congress last month when he met Priyanka Gandhi Vadra and reportedly sought a ticket for himself and his son for the upcoming polls, said a Congress leader close to the Sukh Ram family.
However, after coming out of the meeting with no assurance in hand, the father-son duo seems to have placed their bet on the BJP. This was evident by Anil Sharma’s repeated appearances with CM Jairam Thakur in recent weeks and his presence at a meeting of district office bearers chaired by BJP president J.P. Nadda in Bilaspur on 3 October.
‘Anil Sharma met Priyanka, Nadda’
Aashray, his father Anil Sharma and grandfather Sukh Ram had hitched their wagon to the BJP in the run-up to the 2017 assembly polls. Asked what prompted their decision, the family had said at the time that it was because Sukh Ram was kept off the dais during a public meeting in Mandi attended by Congress leader Rahul Gandhi.
The real reason for their exit, however, according to a Congress leader close to the family, was that the three of them had figured the Congress was in no position to fend off anti-incumbency building up against the Virbhadra Singh administration.
Having won from Mandi on a BJP ticket, Anil Sharma was made a minister in the Jairam Thakur government in 2017. But his tenure was cut short in 2019 when son Aashray and father Sukh Ram returned to the Congress after the former was denied a ticket by the BJP to contest from Mandi.
Anil Sharma was dropped from the council of ministers for refusing to campaign for the BJP candidate who was pitted against his son from Mandi, said another source in the BJP. Aashray lost that election to BJP’s Ram Swaroop Sharma by a margin of over 4 lakh votes.
A BJP leader from Mandi said Anil Sharma then distanced himself from party activities and even ignored instructions to campaign for the BJP candidate for the Mandi parliamentary by-election in 2021, which the Congress won by fielding Virbhadra Singh’s widow Pratibha.
Aashray Sharma told ThePrint: “My father met both Priyanka ji and J.P. Nadda ji last month. He reminded Priyanka ji how Sukh Ram ji was humiliated in the past and said we can remain in the Congress only if our pride is protected, but he did not get a clear answer.”
Alleging that the writ of the “dynasty” reigns supreme in Himachal Congress, he added, “Entire Congress runs from Shimla where Pratibha Singh lives. There is no representation of Mandi district in the organisation, which is why I decided to leave the party.”
Aashray also said that Nadda assured Anil Sharma that the family’s “pride will be restored and grievances addressed”. “He [Nadda] even told [BJP national vice president] Saudan Singh, who is the party’s in-charge of Himachal, to involve my father more prominently [in the campaign],” he claimed.
On where he sees his political future, Aashray told ThePrint: “I am talking to my supporters about my next move, but it is clear now that my family will remain with one party [BJP] whether I get a ticket or not. My father will contest the election.”
Meanwhile, a senior Himachal Pradesh BJP leader, who did not wish to be named, said ticket distribution will be decided based on the party’s internal survey. “Aashray’s return is not final. He is keen to join but high command has final say in the matter,” said the leader.
Sukh Ram — Congress warhorse
Himachal Pradesh’s Mandi district has been a stronghold of the Sukh Ram family for decades. He represented Mandi in the state assembly for four consecutive terms (1967-1984), even retaining his seat during the 1977 Janata Party wave.
He vacated the seat in 1984 to contest the Lok Sabha polls and represented Mandi thrice in the Lower House. He lost the Mandi parliamentary seat in 1989, but won it back in 1991 and was made Minister of State (MoS) for telecom in the P.V. Narsimha Rao government.
Despite allegations of corruption levelled against him by political adversaries, he retained his parliamentary seat in 1996.
After he was expelled from the Congress the same year for his alleged role in the telecom scam, Sukh Ram launched his party — Himachal Vikas Congress (HVC) — and won five seats in the 1998 assembly polls. He then extended support to the BJP, which had fallen short of a majority, and helped Prem Kumar Dhumal become chief minister of the hill state.
The BJP returned the favour by sending Anil Sharma to the Rajya Sabha.
As the HVC’s tally dipped to one seat in the 2003 assembly polls, Sukh Ram made peace with Virbhadra Singh and merged his party with the Congress ahead of the 2004 general election when the Congress fielded Pratibha Singh from Mandi — a seat she won. Anil Sharma won the Mandi assembly seat in 2007 and again in 2012 on a Congress ticket.
Sukh Ram, the five-time MLA and three-time MP returned to the limelight in 2011 when he was convicted of graft charges in three cases probed by the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI).
Why Mandi matters to BJP
For the BJP, Mandi will be crucial in the upcoming elections given that it lost the seat to Congress in the parliamentary by-poll last year despite fielding star campaigners, including PM Modi and the chief minister himself.
Mandi district houses 10 assembly constituencies, all of which were won by the BJP in 2017 in contrast to 2012 when only five BJP MLAs were elected from this district.
“A major factor behind the BJP’s victory in Mandi [in 2017] was Sukh Ram’s decision to join the party. In 2021, Sukh Ram supported Pratibha Singh and she won the Lok Sabha by-poll. The Sukh Ram family has an emotional connection with the voters,” said Anil Sharma.
However, a senior BJP leader from Mandi said on condition of anonymity that “nobody knows whether the father-son duo [Anil, Aashray] will remain with the BJP till the election since the family is highly unpredictable”.
“In 2017, Anil Sharma published a Facebook post about Congress’s ‘Mission Repeat’ in Himachal but later that same evening, he announced his decision to join the BJP. The Sukh Ram family has lost its influence on account of party-hopping,” the leader said.
He added that Mandi is now seen as CM Jairam Thakur’s home district.
“In the hilly state, even one or two seats can change the result of an election and CM can’t risk miscalculation in his home district. And so, he has forgiven Anil Sharma for tantrums in the past that caused the party embarrassment,” said the BJP leader.
(Edited by Amrtansh Arora)