Himachal Pradesh

Walking a tight rope

Print edition : May 24, 2019

Congress president Rahul Gandhi with former Union Telecommunications Minister Sukh Ram and his grandson Aashray Sharma after the two joined the Congress in New Delhi on March 25. Aashray is contesting from Mandi. Photo: PTI

Former Chief Minister Virbhadra Singh with Congress candidate Dhani Ram Shandil (left) in Sirmaur on April 20. Photo: PTI

Shanta Kumar, the BJP heavyweight, has been denied nomination to Kangra. Photo: Sandeep Saxena

Anurag Thakur. The BJP has fielded its sitting MP from Hamirpur. Photo: Sandeep Saxena

The BJP and the Congress are not leaving anything to chance in winning the four Lok Sabha seats.

The electoral contest in the predominantly agrarian and apple-growing State of Himachal Pradesh is sharply polarised between the Congress and the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). The election to the four Lok Sabha seats—Kangra, Mandi, Hamirpur and Shimla—in the State will take place on May 19, in the last phase of polling. Forty-five candidates are in the fray, and no political party is leaving anything to chance.

In 2014, in the face of severe anti-incumbency mood against the Congress governments in the State and at the Centre, all the four seats were won by the BJP. The situation in 2019 is vastly different, although the BJP is expected to make national security its main electoral plank. The State voted for the BJP in the Assembly elections in 2017. The BJP won 44 of the 68 seats while the Congress secured 21, 15 seats less than its 2012 tally of 36 seats. Independents won two seats and the Communist Party of India (Marxist), one.

Since the promises made by the BJP in its 2014 election manifesto for Himachal Pradesh remain unfulfilled, it is not clear whether the party will make a clean sweep this time too. The BJP had promised to increase the import duty on apples in order to protect the interests of domestic growers and set up fruit-processing units. Both these promises, which have economic implications for the State in which horticulture and agriculture are the main sources of livelihood, have not been implemented.

The contest in the State has for some time been mainly between the Congress and the BJP. To that extent, the shelf life of splinter groups such as the Himachal Vikas (HVC) Congress, floated by former Union Minister Sukh Ram, has been exceedingly brief although the former Congress Minister still holds considerable sway in his home district of Mandi. The HVC merged with the Congress in 2004, but that has not prevented its leaders from swinging between the Congress and the BJP. In April, giving a fillip to the Congress’ prospects, Sukh Ram’s son, Anil Sharma, who had joined the BJP during the 2017 Assembly elections and was made Power Minister in the BJP government, quit the party and joined the Congress along with his father and son, Aashray Sharma. The Congress has nominated Aashray Sharma for Mandi, where he takes on Ram Swaroop Sharma, the sitting BJP MP. Ram Swaroop Sharma defeated Pratibha Singh, wife of former Congress Chief Minister Virbhadra Singh in 2014. The Congress has been wooing back all its old warhorses from the BJP fold. The return of these leaders to the Congress could spell trouble for the BJP.

Similarly, in Shimla reserved constituency, the Congress has fielded Colonel Dhani Ram Shandil (retd), who entered the electoral fray for the first time in 1999 as a HVC nominee. He won the seat. In 2004, he contested on the Congress ticket after the HVC merged with the parent party. But he was defeated by Virendra Kashyap of the BJP. Subsequently, he contested and won the Assembly election from Solan reserved constituency. The BJP has nominated Suresh Kashyap and not Virender Kashyap.

The Congress has fielded five-time MP Ram Lal Thakur from Hamirpur to take on the BJP sitting MP Anurag Thakur. The former president of the Board of Control for Cricket in India and son of former BJP Chief Minister Prem Kumar Dhumal, Anurag Thakur was first elected to the seat in 2008. Hamirpur is a BJP stronghold. In Kangra, the BJP denied the ticket to former Union Minister and party heavyweight Shanta Kumar and fielded Kishan Kapoor instead.

Third front

The Left, represented mainly by the Communist Party of India (Marxist), has emerged as a credible third front in the State. It has fielded Dalip Singh Kayath in Mandi. The majority of the electorate in the State resides in rural areas where caste and community specific equations are important factors in the election. The State has the second largest Dalit population as a percentage of the total population after Punjab. Oppression and marginalisation of Dalits is a common feature in the State.

Rakesh Singha, the CPI(M)’s representative in the State Assembly, has been raising issues such as grant of special status and special economic assistance for the State, free regularisation and registration of landholdings up to two hectares, land for building homesteads in urban and rural areas, a minimum support price that is one and a half times more than the cost of production for all agricultural and horticultural produce, lifting of the ban on the export of monkeys (the simian menace is a major issue for farmers), policies for the storage of agricultural and horticultural produce, raising of the import duty on apples by 100 per cent, unemployment allowance of Rs.3,000 and 50 per cent quota for all local youth in jobs. The CPI(M) has also demanded the revival of the old pension scheme that was rolled back after the new pension scheme came into force in May 2003, implementation of One Rank One Pension for armed forces personnel and the filling of vacant posts in various government departments. It has also proposed free health care and a substantial increase in the health and education allocations in the State budget.

National security

The BJP, on its part, has been selling the idea of the importance of national security to the electorate, claiming that it is the only party that can provide it. Addressing a meeting in Hamirpur for the BJP’s star candidate, Anurag Thakur, Chief Minister Jai Ram Thakur said that the party had succeeded in getting the United Nations to declare Azhar Masood (founder of the Pakistan-based terrorist outfit Jaish-e-Mohammad) an international terrorist. The BJP infused a sense of security among the people, he said. Nationalism and national security will undoubtedly be the main electoral planks of the BJP as it tries to divert the attention of the electorate from its unkept promises. Law and order has also been a matter of concern. The recent incident of criminal assault of a 19-year-old girl in Shimla has brought the issue of the deteriorating law and order situation in the State to the fore.

The Congress seems to have a small edge in the State. Its performance also depends on the extent of the anti-incumbency sentiment and agrarian disaffection against the BJP government in the State.