Himachal Pradesh

Development debate

Print edition : May 16, 2014

Anurag Thakur, the BJP candidate from Hamirpur (left), with his father and former Chief Minister Prem Kumar Dhumal at a rally in Hamirpur on April 16. Photo: PTI

Chief Minister Virbhadra Singh at an election rally in Mandi on April 16 flanked by Pratibha Singh, his wife and the MP seeking re-election from Mandi, and Kaul Singh Thakur, Pradesh Congress Committee president. Photo: PTI

WITH just four parliamentary seats, Himachal Pradesh may appear insignificant in comparison with States that play a bigger role in deciding the shape of the Lok Sabha. Yet, the bevy of star campaigners listed in both the ruling Congress and the opposition Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) suggests that every seat in this tiny hill State will be fought over keenly. The State goes to the polls on May 7.

In Himachal Pradesh, which has a high literacy rate and an economy predominantly rooted in agriculture, development and related issues are being enthusiastically talked about. The government’s performance and issues of unemployment and corruption are discussed. There is no palpable anti-incumbency sentiment against the Congress government led by Virbhadra Singh, which has been in the saddle only for the last one and a half years. But the Modi factor cannot be overruled, and the 15 per cent urban vote is likely to go in the BJP’s favour though there is nothing like a wave in the name of an individual in the hill State. Himachal Pradesh is the country’s least urbanised State.

A political observer pointed out that in parliamentary elections, voters in Himachal Pradesh tended to vote for the party heading the State government. At present three of the four seats are with the BJP and one is with the Congress. The two parties are expected to win two seats each this time.

Corruption as an issue confronts both the parties in equal measure. If dissidence troubles the Congress with some Central leaders known for their animus towards the Chief Minister, it is equally prevalent in the BJP. In the Hamirpur constituency, which is represented by Anurag Thakur, son of BJP leader and former Chief Minister Prem Kumar Dhumal, there was opposition from the ranks to Thakur’s renomination. Thakur, president of the All India Bharatiya Yuva Morcha, faces Kamal Kant Batra of the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP), who is the mother of a soldier who died in the Kargil conflict. Interestingly, the Congress nominee here is none other than a former BJP rebel and independent MLA, Rajendra Rana. Of the four Lok Sabha seats, the Congress is expected to win Mandi and Shimla. Hamirpur and Kangra are expected to go to the BJP.

The other players are the Bahujan Samaj Party and the Communist Party of India (Marxist), contesting four and two seats respectively. The AAP is making its debut. The CPI(M) made its mark in the State electoral politics by winning the Mayor and Deputy Mayor elections in Shimla, the only corporation in the State.

A three-cornered contest is expected in Shimla (reserved), where Jagat Ram, president of the Centre of Indian Trade Unions, is the CPI(M) candidate. He faces the sitting MP from the BJP, Virendra Kashyap, and the sitting MLA from Rohru, Mohan Lal Bragta of the Congress. Other heavyweights include two-time Chief Minister of the BJP Shanta Kumar Kangra, who faces a former BJP veteran and outgoing MP Rajan Sushant, now contesting on the AAP ticket, in Kangra. At Mandi, which is supposed to be a smooth seat for the Congress, Pratibha Singh, wife of the Chief Minister and an MP herself, is contesting. All the four MPs are seeking re-election.

Tikender Panwar, Deputy Mayor, Shimla, told Frontline that there was not any difference between the policies of the BJP and the Congress. Shimla, he said, had a population of over two lakh and had a perennial water shortage, which worsened with the onset of summer. “The Congress and the BJP in unison had planned to privatise the entire water and sewage system instead of mitigating the problems. We objected to it on the grounds that nowhere in the country has there been a success story of water management through privatisation. Secondly, the PPP [private public partnership] mode would have meant disaster for the people who would have been forced to pay a phenomenally high tariff for the water consumption. The government was forced to withdraw it,” he said.

The second major issue, he told Frontline, was that of the property tax system. Both the Congress and the BJP had in the previous municipal corporation and the State Assembly unanimously passed a piece of legislation changing the property tax system from the annual rateable value method to the unit area method (UAM). “The people of Shimla, who were aware of the anomalies of the UAM, rejected the methodology in a public hearing. Under this, agricultural land, green zones, and benefits for the aged, widows, single women, gallantry award winners and bona fide users were also brought under the tax net. The whole exercise would have shifted the burden from the rich to the poor. The CPI(M) campaigned against the system and got the municipal corporation to pass a unanimous resolution against it. We are now pressing the State government to pass an amendment to negate the UAM and allow the corporation to evolve a better tax system,” he added.

There was overall deterioration in the public distribution system and the non-availability of ration cards was a big issue. It had featured in the campaigns of both the BJP and the CPI(M). Price rise was another major issue. Panwar said that unemployment was very high: 11 lakh people, from a population of 60 lakh, are registered unemployed.

The important issues in Himachal Pradesh are inflation and aspects of development such as health care and education. The Gujarat model is not being discussed much. People want solutions to local problems and are cynical about the two major parties. The Congress is a divided house. “If we win, it is because of us; if we lose, it is because of Virbhadra Singh,” is how a political observer summed up the sentiment in a section of the Central leadership of the Congress.

T.K. Rajalakshmi

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