Corruption, inflation and unemployment under BJP rule make the voters of Himachal Pradesh decide in favour of the Congress(I).
ON March 6, after what was an unexpectedly smooth victory for the Congress(I) in the February 26 Assembly elections, veteran Congress(I) leader Virbhadra Singh was sworn in Chief Minister of Himachal Pradesh for the fifth time. He had been unanimously re-elected Congress Legislative Party leader thus putting to rest all speculation as to who was the undisputed mass leader in the State Congress(I). A 15-member Cabinet was also constituted with members owing allegiance to two groups, one led by the CLP leader and the other by Pradesh Congress Committee president Vidya Stokes.
The transparent factionalism within its State unit had been a nagging problem for the party and it was feared that this could negatively impact its electoral performance. But given the extreme resentment against the outgoing Bharatiya Janata Party government, these factors turned out to be of secondary importance to the voter. The BJP's electoral debacle in Himachal Pradesh was not just a case of anti-incumbency, organisational weakness or factionalism, as projected by its top rung leaders. And Congress reaped the benefits of the popular resentment, not because of its sterling qualities as a party in Opposition but because of the lack of a third, clean alternative.
The BJP could win only 16 of the 65 seats for which elections were held (three seats will poll in June) while the Congress(I), the main Opposition party, bagged 40 seats. While independents won six seats, one seat each went to the Himachal Vikas Congress (HVC), the Loktantrik Morcha (Himachal Pradesh) and the Lok Jan Shakti Party. The Nationalist Congress Party (NCP), Samajwadi Party (S.P), and the Samajwadi Janata Party (SJP) drew a blank. The Communist Party of India (Marxist) came runner-up in the Shimla seat, pushing the BJP candidate to the third position.
The contest was mainly a bipolar one with regional parties like the former Telecommunications Minister Sukh Ram's HVC getting badly sidelined. The HVC put up a good fight in some seats such as Mandi but came a poor third or fourth in most of the constituencies it contested. The HVC had won five seats and secured 9.63 per cent of the votes polled in the last Assembly elections.
There were 111 independents in the fray this time as compared to 52 in the last elections. While only one had managed to win last time, this time six independents were elected, of whom four are Congress(I) rebels. Interestingly, the independents are not exactly independent as their owe their allegiance to important factions of both the BJP and the Congress.
What exactly happened, especially to the fortunes of the BJP? The voter turnout was very encouraging with most constituencies reporting turnouts of over 70 per cent.
What paid off for the Congress(I) was its early campaign on the broad issue of corruption, in which it also targeted the outgoing Chief Minister, Prem Kumar Dhumal. But surprisingly, the electorate had already made up its mind against the BJP government in the face of the rising costs of living, rampant unemployment among the educated class, corruption in job allotments and transfers, and above all the profligate life style of some members of the Dhumal government. Issues such as the settlement of families displaced by dams and the increase in the prices of essential commodities also influenced the voter. The BJP's election slogan of vikaas (development) could not woo the voter in the face of such harsh realities.
The voters also did not heed the argument of the BJP that a government in Shimla that is friendly to the government at the Centre could help the State a lot, probably because they had not benefited at all from the Central largesse during the last five years.
Union Rural Development Minister Shanta Kumar was not far from the truth when he said on television that the State government had not been able to assure sushasan (good governance), and saaf suthra prashasan (a clean administration) along with vikaas. The government had not fulfilled its promises in five years, he said. He denied that he had played a negative role in the elections, but admitted that there had been rebels and that party discipline was not the same as before. The lessons from Himachal, said the Union Minister, were about the importance of good governance and the fulfilment of promises. There were shortcomings in the performance of the government, he admitted candidly. Commenting on the Left Front's victory in Tripura, he said there was something special in the manner the Left Front kept on winning, keeping the anti-incumbency factor at bay.
The BJP did not re-nominate five of its sitting legislators, three of whom decided to contest as independents. But surprisingly, the most visible of the BJP rebel group, the Mitra Mandalis, headed by Mohendra Nath Sofat, did not win a single seat. In fact, in Solan, where the effect of the rebel factor was almost certain to have been felt, the BJP candidate, Rajeev Bindal, won albeit with a thin margin of 1,359 votes; Sofat came second. If the BJP's defeat in seats such as Kulu or Kangra, Shilai or even Pragpur were an outcome of obvious rebel presence, there was no explanation why the rebel factor did not work in seats such as Nalagarh, where the BJP nominee won with a handsome lead of 3,083 votes while the rebel came third garnering 21.2 per cent of the votes polled. It is also difficult to explain away the defeat of BJP stalwarts like Health Minister J. P. Nadda in Bilaspur, Speaker Thakur Gulab Singh in Jogindernagar, Horticulture Minister Narendra Bragta in Jubbal-Kotkhai, Kishan Kapoor in Dharamsala and Forest Minister Roop Singh in Sundernagar. In all these constituencies, the contests were straight and bipolar.
Equally surprising was the defeat of Excise Minister Praveen Sharma from Chintpurni, Roop Das Kashyap from Kasumpti (reserved), party president Jaikrishen Sharma from Santokhgarh, and Rakesh Pathania from Nurpur. All these were straight contests and, in fact, the official Congress(I) candidates faced some discomfiture with the presence of rebels, especially in Santokhgarh, Nurpur and Kutlehar.
In Gangath, Jawali, Sulah and Dharamsala, there were no rebels in the fray and yet the BJP lost the seats it had held. In Dharamsala, the presence of a prominent Congress(I) rebel contesting on the HVC ticket made little impact on the result, which was in favour of the Congress(I). The HVC, after all, was seen as part of the outgoing government since an HVC-BJP coalition had been in power until about six months before the elections. The BJP raked up emotive issues such as Ayodhya and possible legislation banning cow slaughter and religious conversions - the voter, inscrutable as ever, listened but did not vote for the BJP. A lesson that the Congress(I) would do well to remember, if it wants a favourable mandate in the next Assembly elections in 2008.