Assembly election

Clean sweep in Himachal Pradesh

Print edition : January 05, 2018

Suresh Bhardwaj, the Shimla Urban BJP candidate, during a victory procession. Photo: AKHILESH KUMAR

Prem Kumar Dhumal. Photo: AKHILESH KUMAR

Virbhadra Singh. Photo: AKHILESH KUMAR

BJP candidate Anil Sharma, son of former Communications Minister Sukh Ram, celebrates after winning the Mandi Assembly election, on December 18. Photo: PTI

CPI(M) candidate Rakesh Singha, who won from the Theog constituency.

The BJP wrests power from the Congress in a keenly fought election marked by a few upsets.

In the single-phase election to the Himachal Pradesh Assembly on November 9, which registered the highest ever turnout (75.28 per cent) in the history of the State, the electorate of Himachal Pradesh voted the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) to power. The BJP’s return to the seat of governance in the State after a gap of five years was not a surprise because no party has managed to win elections successively and retain the reins of power since 1985. Yet, the elections to the 68-member State Assembly were keenly contested between the incumbent Congress and the opposition BJP. While six-time Congress Chief Minister Virbhadra Singh led his party’s campaign, his political adversary and former Chief Minister Prem Kumar Dhumal was the face of the BJP.

Compared to the number of high-octane rallies in Gujarat, Prime Minister Narendra Modi addressed only seven in the State, leaving most of the campaigning to Dhumal. The high-decibel campaign in Gujarat was in contrast to the largely subdued campaigning in Himachal Pradesh.

While the BJP secured a thumping majority, its Chief Ministerial candidate lost, as did the party’s BJP State president, Satpal Singh Satti. Dhumal lost from Sujanpur by 2,933 votes. The winner, Rajinder Singh Rana of the Congress, was once his protege. He had successfully contested as an independent in 2012 too.

Dhumal’s relative and former Speaker Gulab Singh Thakur also lost. The defeat of the BJP heavyweights in the face of anti-incumbency and a decisive two-thirds majority was inexplicable.

Factionalism in the BJP has been a feature for quite some time. With competing interests and claims for Chief Ministership, Dhumal’s position was always somewhat shaky in this round of election. He was not keen to shift his constituency from Hamirpur. He was named as the party’s Chief Ministerial candidate after a considerable delay. There was intense speculation early on that J.P. Nadda, the Union Minister for Health and Family Welfare, would be the BJP’s candidate for the top job. Accommodating all these competing interests had become a challenge for the party.

The highlight of this year’s elections was that it was a straight contest between the two parties unlike the Assembly elections of 2012 which saw a formation like the Himachal Lokhit Party (HLP) as well as many independents in the fray. The HLP, a breakaway faction of the BJP, eroded the BJP vote base and helped the Congress win a simple majority. In 2012, the Congress and the BJP won 36 and 26 seats, while six seats went to others, including independents. Prior to the 2017 Assembly elections the HLP declared its merger with the BJP and ensured that the anti-Congress vote did not get divided; a significant proportion of it went to the BJP. However, the president of the HLP, Maheshwar Singh, who contested from Kullu, lost to the Congress candidate. The BJP’s vote share was 48.7 per cent, a rise of 10 percentage points from 2012 (38.47 per cent), while the Congress secured 41.8 per cent, virtually unchanged from 42.81 per cent last time. Around 0.9 per cent of the electorate exercised the NOTA (none of the above) option this time.

CPI(M)’s victory

This election saw a new entrant, Rakesh Singha of the Communist Party of India (Marxist), winning decisively from the Theog constituency beating the BJP candidate, pushing the Congress to the third place.

The CPI (M), which put up 13 candidates, came in third in a number of seats. The party has been in the forefront of taking up farmers’ issues and Singha has established himself as a feisty trade union and farmer leader over the years. The Congress faced bitter factionalism in Theog as former Himachal Pradesh Congress Committee (HPCC) president Vidya Stokes’ nomination papers were rejected as another candidate had already filed his papers as the party nominee. The Assembly seat of Shimla was retained by Suresh Bhardwaj of the BJP, where the runner-up was an independent, followed by Sanjay Chauhan of the CPI(M). The Congress was pushed to the fourth place.

In 2012, independents and others secured 18.72 per cent of the vote; in 2017, the share of parties other than the BJP and the Congress was less than 10 per cent. The Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP), which fielded candidates in 42 seats, 26 less than last time, drew a blank and secured less than one per cent of the vote. Dalits constitute nearly 25 per cent of the population in the State, which, as a proportion of the population, is the highest in the country after Punjab. The BJP retained nearly 20 seats and wrested the rest from the Congress. It lost four seats.

The main election issues that the BJP focussed on were corruption, governance and law and order. The recent rape and murder of a schoolgirl in Jubbal-Kotkhai became election fodder in the constituency, where Narendra Bragta of the BJP won, defeating Rohit Thakur of the Congress.

The BJP started its campaign early on. It launched a Parivartan Rath Yatra promoting the idea of “double engine growth”, indicating that having a friendly government at the Centre would help the State in many ways. The BJP also claimed it would win more than 40 seats.

The Congress, on the other hand, focussed on the “adverse impact” of the Goods and Services Tax and demonetisation.

Congress heavyweights Virbhadra Singh, Dhani Ram Shandil, Asha Kumari and Mukesh Agnihotri won comfortably while Vikramaditya Singh, Virbhadra Singh’s son, made his debut in electoral politics by winning the Shimla (Rural) seat, which his father vacated. However, State Transport Minister G.S. Bali lost to Arun Kumar of the BJP. In Mandi, Anil Sharma, son of former Union Minister Sukh Ram, won on the BJP ticket. The Dehra seat was won by Hoshyar Singh, an independent, while Ravinder Singh Ravi of the BJP was the runner-up; senior Congress leader Viplove Thakur was relegated to third position. Gulab Singh Thakur was also defeated by an independent in Joginder Nagar, where the Congress came third.