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Daunting road ahead for Virbhadra Singh in sixth innings

Daunting road ahead for Virbhadra Singh in sixth inningsShimla, Dec 28 - After drubbing his rivals both within and outside the party, the Raja's chariot now heads for his final innings in Himachal Pradesh.

Popularly known as 'Raja Saab' as he was born in the erstwhile princely state of Rampur Bushahr, 78-year-old Congress leader Virbhadra Singh, who began on Dec 25 his record sixth stint as the state's chief minister, has tough challenges ahead, political observers say.

Virbhadra Singh has already declared that he would quit politics after this tenure. Observers say that he faces the tough challenges of reining in top government functionaries, sharply divided on political lines, and bringing the state out of the red.

Sources said soon after taking the oath Dec 25, Virbhadra Singh reached the state secretariat here where he met top bureaucrats and told them he "means business".

"The huge debt is a matter of concern. It's a serious threat (to the state's development). To improve fiscal health, we have to increase our earnings and reduce dependence on borrowings," he told IANS on his first day in office, Christmas Day.

Blaming the previous Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) government for the fiscal mess, he said the state's loan liability, where the economy rests mainly on tourism, horticulture and hydropower, is likely to touch Rs. 30,000 crore this fiscal.

The chief minister said the cumulative debt liability of the state was around Rs. 19,000 crore in 2007-08.

The previous BJP government came to power in December 2007 after defeating the Congress.

"The implementation of financial doles like unemployment allowance of Rs. 1,000 per month to all 10+2 passouts and graduates whose total family income is less than Rs. 200,000 a year is really a tough challenge for the government," said an official, who didn't wish to be identified.

Listing out his priorities, Virbhadra Singh told reporters that his first priority would be to strengthen the public services.

"Improvement in health, education and roads are among the top priorities," the chief minister said.

Without mincing words, and losing no opportunity to take a dig at his predecessor in office, Prem Kumar Dhumal of the BJP, he said: "Fighting out corruption will be the top priority. But I will not fabricate cases against political opponents, as the BJP did."

But the chief minister said categorically that the officials and political officials who were involved in corruption would not be spared.

"Special investigation teams will be soon constituted to investigate cases where top political and administrative functionaries were involved in corruption, especially in illegal property transactions," he said.

On his first day in office, Virbhadra Singh ordered the transfers of some police officers, even though it was a public holiday on account of Christmas.

On the same day, the cabinet, at its first meeting, decided to review all the major decisions taken by the Dhumal-led government in the past six months.

Virbhadra Singh, who has been credited with reforms in education, social, infrastructure and power sectors, has served as chief minister of the state for over 16 years. (IANS)