November 30, 2022

On a sunny winter afternoon in Birwari, a picturesque mountain village in the remote Salooni subdivision of Dalhousie constituency, a group of villagers wait for local Congressman Asha Kumari, 67, better known to her as ‘Asha Rani’. voters.

Asha Kumari sab pe bhaari‘ read the slogan on badges affixed by congressional staffers to her chest and to the paper cups in which tea is served to villagers awaiting arrival.

Dressed in a blue salwar kameez with a dupatta on her head, she is soon greeted with garlands. She hugs women and greets men with clasped hands and smiles through the raised platform under the huge tree.

Soon a man in a loudspeaker-equipped vehicle announces: “Yaad rakhiye, November 12 ka din hoga, haath ka button dabana hai, Asha Kumari ko bhaari maton se jitaana hai…aur Himachal ka CM banana hai… (Remember, the day will be November 12th, you must press the ‘hand’ button, let Asha win by a large majority and make her the CM of Himachal…)”.

A six-time MLA from Dalhousie (four times from the former Banikhet constituency and twice from Dalhousie) and now running for a ninth straight year, Asha Kumari is another former royal family scion after the late “Raja” Virbhadra Singh, who was also her maternal uncle in the race for Prime Minister of Himachal.

Born into the royal Sarguja clan of undivided Madhya Pradesh and married into the royal family of the princely state of Chamba, Kumari’s foray into politics began with the National Students’ Union of India in Bhopal. She is a graduate of Fine Arts from Bhopal University.

Her father, the late Mandeshwar Saran Singh Deo, was the former chief secretary of Madhya Pradesh. She was married to the late “Rajkumar” Brijendra Singh of Chamba. Both her mother and mother-in-law (coincidentally both named Devendra Kumari) were Congressional MLAs in the undivided MP and HP, respectively. Her elder brother TS Singh Deo, Congress MLA from Ambikapur is the current Health Minister of Chhattisgarh and is campaigning for her in Dalhousie.

In her ninth election, Kumari, who has always prided herself on her lineage from the royal family “who have worked for the good of the people,” subtly reminds voters that she also comes from a “rajgharana (royal family)” and a vote for them also means “shraddhanjali (Homage)” to the late Virbhadra Singh.

“You have given me six chances to be your representative…we have established schools, colleges, hospitals…all under the tenure of the late Virbhadra Singh yeahhum aapke paas apne kaam ka vote maangne ​​aaye hain (we are here to ask for votes for our work),” she tells villagers in Birwari, a village where the state primary school is still a victim due to a shortage of teachers.

She soon takes aim at the BJP and, in interaction with women in the audience, says: “Par hum wo kaam nahi karenge jo inhone kia…Khush ho ab cylinder 1,200 ka hoyi gaya na? Khush ho? Abhi to 1200 ho huya hai, paanch saal aur dedo, 2000 ka ho jayega. Sarson ka tel, lag gaya tadka? Pehli baar Angrezon ke baad, atta, dal, chawal pe bhi tax laga..‘ (But we won’t do what BJP did. Are you happy now that a bottle is Rs 1,200? Give them five more years and it will reach Rs 2,000… For the first time since British rule, staple foods will be taxed ) .

Then she invokes Virbhadra and says: “It is only a leader like Virbhadra yeah who can think of the poor. He made sure that the poor got food every month. Wo yahan nahi hai par unki aatma yahin hai.. (He is not here but his soul is here)…Vikas ke saath, aapka vote unko shraddhanjali ka vote hoga (Your voice will not only be for the development but also a tribute to Virbhadra Singh).”

The two-time former minister, who is known to be close to Sonia Gandhi, says that “it is only thanks to the foresight of Sonia Gandhi and former Prime Minister Manmohan Singh that the poor have been able to survive Covid and make a living from MNREGS”.

Opposing her once again is BJP’s Dhavinder Singh Thakur, 55, a rock-breaking contractor whom she defeated in 2017 by a razor-thin margin of just 556 votes.

Kumari, who mostly stays at her Jandrighat Palace in Dalhousie, calls it a battle “jan bal vs. dhan bal,” or power of the people versus power of money. Ironically, this time she’s one of the few greedy candidates in the Himachal Pradesh polls to have hired Chandigarh-based digital political campaign management company DesignBoxed to manage her campaign.

Main raj gharane se hu, mera bhi ek vote hai aur aapka bhi…aap janbal ke saath hain ya dhanbal ke saath? (I come from a royal family, but we all have the same power to cast our vote. Are you with the one who enjoys the power of the people or the one who has the power of the money?),” she says and targets BJP candidate Thakur.

In reality, both Kumari and Thakur are crorepatis when it comes to money power. While Thakur, who owns a stone crushing company and is a government contractor of PWD Department of Himachal Pradesh, has assets of over Rs. 15 crore, Kumari has assets of over Rs. 5.40 crore.

Kumari’s supporters are also targeting Thakur with posters titled “DS ya OPS?” referring to DS Thakur and the One Pension Scheme.

In tourist hub Dalhousie, with a limited share of votes from the entire constituency electorate, shopkeepers and locals feel Kumari hasn’t addressed their problems because the majority of votes are from the villages (which stretch to the J&K border), not out of town . “Although this is a famous hill station from the British era, the problems here are increasing for tourists and locals alike. Parking, garbage, pollution, roads, every topic is here. Their focus is always on villages, not the city, which only has around 6,000 votes,” said a local shopkeeper.

Also, Kumari, the former AICC in charge of Punjab affairs, is close to former Punjab Chief Minister Captain Amarinder Singh, who is now in the BJP. She’s had her own share of controversy, too. Kumari was convicted by a Chamba court in a land grab case in 2016, and her appeal against the conviction is now pending before the Supreme Court. In 2017, she beat a police officer on duty in Shimla when she was prevented from meeting Rahul Gandhi. The police officer slapped her on the back. Kumari later apologized.

Formerly in Diur, the “humble Rani” would sit on the floor with the villagers to eat lunch, but instead preferred her own home-cooked meal to the Daal-Bhaat.

Speaking to The Indian Express on her way from Diur to Birwari, Kumari said that Virbhadra Singh is her “mentor” and she is his “prodigy” and that he is still the face of Congress in Himachal Pradesh. “But if he’s gone, another leader has to emerge and become the CM.”

“Of course I’m the second oldest MLA after Kaul Singh Thakur (eight times MLA by Mandi’s Drang) and the only woman to have won six times. I have great faith in Sonia Gandhi and it is up to the party to decide my next role. I am a child prodigy of Virbhadra ji, all of us in the HP Congress are,” she says.

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