Mukesh Agnihotri was sworn in as the deputy chief minister at a ceremony in Shimla
SHIMLA/NEW DELHI: With Rahul Gandhi and Priyanka Gandhi Vadra by his side, Sukhvinder Singh Sukhu took oath as the 15th chief minister of Himachal Pradesh on Sunday afternoon.
In a bid to prevent bad blood and factionalism from spoiling the Congress’s Himachal win, another strong contender Mukesh Agnihotri was sworn in as the deputy CM at a ceremony in Shimla, as the third contender for the top post, Pratibha Singh, wife of the late Virbhadra Singh, watched. Congress president Mallikarjun Kharge was also present at the event at the historic Ridge Ground in Shimla.
Former Union minister Anand Sharma, Rajasthan CM Ashok Gehlot, former Haryana chief minister Bhupinder Singh Hooda, Himachal Congress affairs incharge Rajeev Shukla, state Congress chief and senior leader Sachin Pilot also attended the function. This is Ms Vadra's first electoral success while heading the campaign charge.
Mr Sukhu's family, including his mother, wife and daughters, were present at the swearing-in ceremony. During the event, Mr Gandhi called Mr Sukhu’s mother on the stage, where she was welcomed with a warm hug by Ms Vadra.
Ms Singh, who was another contender for the CM post, has been made president of the Himachal Pradesh Congress Committee (HPCC). Mr Gandhi was seen hugging Ms Singh on stage. Soon after they were sworn in, Mr Sukhu and Mr Agnihotiri, along with others, garlanded the picture of the late Virbhadra Singh. Earlier, Mr Sukhu went to personally invite Ms Singh for the swearing in ceremony. "Party comes first, CM's post later. Ms Singh is my idol," Mr Sukhu said.
People in traditional attire gathered at the Ridge Ground in large numbers to witness the ceremony. They danced to the tune of folk music and raised slogans of "Sukhu bhai zindabad". Some enthusiastic supporters lifted their probable ministers on their shoulders to reach the venue. However, no other minister was administered the oath of office. Mr Hooda said the formation of a Congress government has infused new energy in the party. "When winds of change blow from the hills, they go down to the plains," he said.
Mr Sukhu's choice as the chief minister is being seen as the Congress giving the top post to a commoner and also as the shifting of the party's power centre from the upper Himachal to the lower Himachal. Mr Sukhu, four time MLA, considered a rival of former chief minister Singh, hails from Nadaun in Hamirpur district and is the first Congress leader from lower Himachal -- comprising areas merged in Himachal in 1966 such as Nalagarh, Una, Hamirpur, Kangra and lower hills of Kullu -- to occupy the top state post.
He will be the second chief minister from Hamirpur district, after the BJP's Prem Kumar Dhumal. All former Congress chief ministers, including Y.S. Parmar, Virbhadra Singh and Ram Lal Thakur, were from upper Himachal.
A son of a driver in the Himachal Roadways Transport Corporation, 58-year-old Mr Sukhu was NSUI state president, Youth Congress president, Himachal Pradesh Congress Committee president. Before joining politics, he used to run a milk counter in Chhota Shimla. He received his MA and LLB from Himachal Pradesh University. Rising from the grassroots, he was elected twice as councilor of Shimla Municipal Corporation. He won the Assembly election for the first time in 2003 from Nadaun, retained the seat in 2007, was defeated in 2012 and won again in 2017 and 2022.
The Nadaun MLA, who is considered close to Mr Gandhi and was the head of the Congress campaign committee, was unanimously elected leader of the Congress Legislature Party on Saturday.
Ms Singh's supporters lodged their protest against the name of Mr Sukhu and asserted that their leader, who is MP Mandi and the state Congress president, should be the chief minister. Ms Singh later said they have accepted the decision of the party high command and denied all speculations of a rift within the party.
With the party bagging its first victory in the hill state without the charismatic presence of Virbhadra Singh, Mr Sukhu's swearing-in as chief minister makes it clear that the party is ready to move on. However, it is expected that Ms Singh's son Vikramaditya Singh may be included in the Sukku Cabinet.
A journalist-turned-politician, Mr Agnihotri is the Brahmin face of the Congress in Himachal Pradesh. With his elevation to the post of deputy chief minister, the party hopes to sustain the community's support. The Leader of the Opposition in the outgoing Assembly, Mr Agnihotri, 60, was one of the frontrunners for the post of chief minister.
The Congress wrested power from the BJP in the hill state, winning 40 of the 68 Assembly seats. The polling was held on November 12 and the results were declared Thursday. This was the first state election since the demise of Virbhadra Singh in July 2021.