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The Rediff Election Special/Pankaj Upadhyaya in Shimla
'Sukh Ram is like god to us'
February 25, 2003 23:08 IST
To understand the much-debated 'Sukh Ram factor' in Himachal Pradesh's politics all you need to do is dial the following number --- 01900-222504.
The person who will answer the phone will in all likelihood be Sukhram.
No, not the Himachal Vikas Congress chief, who has become a thorn in the flesh of the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party and the Congress, the principal opposition party.
This Sukhram is the chief election officer for the state's remotest and climatically and geographically the most difficult district of Lahaul and Spiti.
While the entire state will vote on Wednesday to install a new government in Shimla, polling in Lahaul and Spiti and two other constituencies [Bharmour in Chamba district and Kinnaur] will take place in June. For now, Lahaul and Spiti is snowbound and cut off from civilisation.
Sukhram's phone, however, will ring and his voice will crackle through clearly, come snow or thunderstorm.
Nayab Tehsildar (election) in Chamba Om Prakash told me that getting through to Lahaul and Spiti was not so easy before Sukh Ram, the HVC chief, ushered in the telecommunication revolution in Himachal Pradesh during his tenure as Union communications minister in Narasimha Rao's government.
A farmer from Bharmour said people from his village a few years back used to wait for days together to get a call through to their children studying in Hamirpur, Chandigrah or Delhi. "Now when we talk to them, it's like our children are sitting with us," he said.
Today every village in the state has a phone connection. "Even a class IV employee now owns a phone. Life for farmers has become so much easier. A phone call and they know the market rates of their farm produce. They can place orders for seeds and fertilisers without having to take an arduous trek down the mountains and then back. Sukh Ram is like god to us," said another farmer in Mandi.
But isn't telecommunication all about technology? Should Sukh Ram, who at best played the role of felicitator in bringing this technology to the mountains of Himachal, get so much credit?
"Oh! We have sent so many ministers to Delhi. Nobody cares for our interests. Whenever Sukh Ram held an office of power in the state or in Delhi, he did something for the state. Whether it was food and civil supplies or defence," Y C Negi, who owns a small farm in Sanaur, 60 km from Mandi, said.
But this is 2003. Sukh Ram was Union telecommunications minister some seven-eight years ago. Today, he looks more like a spent force. A disastrous alliance with the BJP in Himachal, a conviction in a corruption case and rebellion within his party seem to have weakened him considerably.
In Mandi, a Pomeranian guards Sukh Ram's spacious house. It gives no indication that its owner could be careless enough to stash away Rs 30 million in his bathroom. A Delhi court has said he had. The Supreme Court is yet hear the appeal.
Sukh Ram met me in a sparsely furnished room. He spoke in a low voice and his hand trembled every time he raised it to stress a point.
"The HVC is not going to support any party to form a government this time. We have had enough of this. We will win around 18 to 20 seats and it will be our chief minister," he said. "Both the BJP and the Congress have no vision for the state. That is why you have a [Narendra] Modi and an Amarinder Singh campaigning in the state."
But till just a fortnight back wasn't he holding parallel talks with them for a pre-poll alliance? "That is a closed chapter now. Our experience with the BJP was very bad. They do not care for their alliance partners," Sukh Ram said.
Even assuming his party would win 18-20 seats he would still need to join hands with one of them, wouldn't he?
"That arrangement would be different. Our party would be the dominant force in that partnership," he said.
Asked about the conviction, he said, "I have been allowed to contest elections. If I am barred from taking the chief minister's post, somebody else from the party will till such time as the Supreme Court clears my name. The case will come up for hearing in April," he said.
Anyway, corruption charges have become de rigueur during election time. Several independent polls conducted by language dailies have indicated no or only a small dent in Sukh Ram's support base.
As a young man said in Mandi, "Accepted Sukh Ram was caught with Rs 3 crore in his house. But to whom did that money belong? To Himachal Pradesh? No. It probably belonged to some industrialists in Delhi or Bombay, who were anyway loaded. We needed phones and we got them."
Point taken. But despite Sukh Ram's popularity, 18 to 20 seats for the HVC sounds ambitious, and that is putting it politely. In the 1998 election HVC had a 12 per cent vote share and it won five seats (one in a by-poll). For the party to win 18-20 seats this time, its share of votes would have to rise dramatically, something that is unlikely to happen.
The HVC is also in a dilapidated form now. Shortly after the 1998 election, Sukh Ram's close associate Mohinder Singh was expelled from the government and the party. Later, he launched his own party -- the Him Loktantrik Morcha -- and moved on to form another one, the Loktantrik Morcha.
However, in a scenario where both the BJP and the Congress fail to secure a majority, Sukh Ram and the independents could once again play kingmakers. It's a role the HVC chief would love to play.