MANDI: The Mandi Assembly constituency is set to witness an interesting contest as former union minister Sukh Ram's s son Anil Sharma, who is fighting from this seat, switched over to the BJP from the Congress days ahead of November 9 polls.
Rural Development Minister in the Virbhadra Singh government until three weeks back, he is now locked in a keen contest with Congress nominee Champa Thakur, the daughter of state health minister and party stalwart Kaul Singh Thakur.
Sharma, who was a Congress MLA from here in the outgoing Assembly before switching over to the BJP, is banking on his father's goodwill in the area, but the opponents are raking up the 'tainted' past of 92-year-old Sukh Ram in connection with the telecom scam in the 1990s.
The BJP will look to bank on Sukh Ram's clout in Mandi region as he could hold sway and impact a few seats, which can be crucial for them to capture power in the 68-member Himachal Pradesh Assembly.
The Mandi seat was represented by Sukh Ram from 1962 till November 1984, when he was elected to Lok Sabha. His protege D D Thakur won the seat in 1985 while the BJP wrested the seat from him in 1990.
In the 1993 Assembly poll, his son Anil Sharma won from Mandi. After Sukh Ram's name surfaced in the telecom scam, he was expelled from the Congress and formed Himachal Vikas Congress.
Starting his campaigning early in the day, Sharma is greeted with garlands as he enters an urban locality in the 63,000-electorate strong constituency.
Appealing people to strengthen the hands of the BJP and vote for him, Sharma tells them, "Prime Minister Narendra Modi and the BJP have ushered in a new era of development in this country and now it is Himachal's turn to reap benefits." "My father and I have nurtured this constituency for the last many years. We brought a number of developmental projects to the region," he says.
A citadel of Sukh Ram and his family for over five decades, except in 1990 when BJP candidate Kanhiya Lal won the seat, 'Pandjit ji' as the former union minister is popularly called, is bitter about Chief Minister Virbhadra Singh.
"He disgraced many leaders in the party including my son.
He is working like a dictator and even blackmails the Congress high command for self gain," Ram alleges.
Echoing his father's sentiment, Sharma alleged that he and Sukh Ram were ignored and sidelined in the Congress.
"There is no question of continuing in the party where there is no self-respect. Last month, they invited my father to attend Rahul Gandhi's rally here but on reaching the venue he was asked not to attend. We felt humiliated," Sharma told PTI.
He said, "It is true that various kinds of mafia have flourished under his regime because few people are being patronised and allowed to do whatever they feel like." Sharma said if people give him another chance, he will work even harder for the development of this constituency.
Congress nominee Champa Thakur, chairperson of Mandi Zila Parishad, says she might be contesting Assembly polls for the first time, but she has been serving the people for the last 15 years.
Dismissing that Mandi was a stronghold of the Sukh Ram family, Thakur says, "He and his family (members) won this seat many times because it is a Congress bastion." Referring to Sukh Ram floating Himachal Vikas Congress for a brief period in late 1990s after his name surfaced in telecom scam, Thakur said, "Pandit Ji and his son have been shifting their loyalty time and again, and now again they have deserted the Congress. The party is like a mother for any political leader. Those who can cheat a mother, can cheat anyone." Apart from municipal council of Mandi, the Mandi assembly segment's two-third area comprises rural voters and candidates of the two main contesting parties are making every attempt to woo them.