His last bow, grander than ever after beating the odds

FP

His discharge in a long-pending audio CD case completes a remarkable comeback for Virbhadra Singh, coming a day ahead of what is expected, at 78, to be the last time he takes oath as Himachal Pradesh chief minister. The CD contained the recording of an alleged conversation in which Virbhadra, some industrialists and others discussed a monetary deal for investment in the state.

"The case was fabricated," he says. "I have come out a clean man to become chief minister for a sixth time."

The odds had appeared stacked against Virbhadra. Only two months remained for the polls when he was chosen to shepherd the Congress effort. Many regarded him as a spent force, he had cases pending against him, and the party was torn by factionalism, some of it against himself. He not only ensured victory but also left his detractors in the party with no chance of keeping him out of the chief minister's chair.

Now his sixth swearing-in will be on a grander scale than usual. He will take oath for the first time at Shimla's historic Ridge, having done so outside Raj Bhavan's Darbar Hall on all five previous occasions. It appears to be a sign that he does not expect to take up this role again. It has been at the Ridge that Himachal's most historic events have taken place, such as the announcement of statehood by prime minister Indira Gandhi in 1972. When outgoing chief minister Prem Kumar Dhumal had taken oath at the Ridge, Virbhadra had been among the first to criticise it.

"I did not get much time as the election atmosphere had already set in when I was appointed PCC president," he says. "But being an experienced politician, I sensed things would go terribly for the BJP."

Before he was chosen, he had resigned as Union minister after a Shimla court had framed charges of corruption against him. He had found himself marginalised by one section. He tested his strength by calling his loyalist MLAs to Delhi and setting his terms before the party leadership; he started negotiating with the NCP. Fearing a split, the party put him in charge.

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