An uphill task

Published : Apr 27, 2002 00:00 IST

The challenge the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party in Himachal Pradesh faces from the Congress(I) and the newly formed Him Loktantrik Morcha in the Shimla Municipal Corporation elections is indicative of the party's prospects in the Assembly elections next year.

IN the aftermath of the reverses suffered by the Bharatiya Janata Party and its allies in the elections to four State Assemblies, attention is focussed on the coming Assembly elections in Himachal Pradesh and Gujarat. Himachal Pradesh, with a coalition government of the BJP and the Himachal Vikas Congress (HVC), is one of the few States where BJP-led governments still survive. Given the recent electoral reverses, the BJP-HVC coalition is expected to face a tough challenge in the elections scheduled for February 2003. Unlike in the past, the elections may not be a polarised affair between the ruling alliance and the Congress(I); they could turn out to be a four-cornered contest. An indication of this is available in the line-up of political parties for the Shimla Municipal Corporation elections to be held on April 27. The Corporation elections, despite being a local affair, are perceived in political circles as a referendum on the performance of the State government. In fact, it is the only corporation in the State and is considered a microcosm of the State's polity. The electorate is comprised mainly of State and Central government employees and, given the high literacy levels in the State, it will be an informed public that will be going to the polls.

Interestingly, the HVC has decided to contest alone in the corporation elections. It has fielded candidates in 22 of the 24 wards. Predictably, the presence of HVC candidates will spoil the chances of the BJP nominees.

However, the serious challenge to the Congress (I) and the BJP is expected to come from a new political formation called the Him Loktantrik Morcha (HLM), which came into existence on February 6. The Morcha, which is a product of the initiative taken by the Communist Party of India (Marxist), is almost certain to ensure that the usual polarisation of votes between the two mainstream parties will not take place. The HLM has been campaigning against both the BJP-HVC government and the Congress(I) mainly on economic issues. While there is evident discomfort over the entry of the HLM as it comprises several important parties, both the Congress(I) and the BJP have been quick to label it as a party of "frustrated individuals". The majority of Congress(I) rebels have joined the Morcha, and they include a former Mayor and two former Councillors.

Mohinder Singh Choudhary, convener of the HLM and an independent member of the Legislative Assembly, was previously with the HVC and had held the portfolios of Public Works and Excise in the Prem Kumar Dhumal Ministry. He quit the Ministry after BJP Ministers levelled corruption charges against him. Later, when he was expelled from the HVC, he joined the Lok Jan Shakti, a constituent of the National Democratic Alliance (NDA) which rules at the Centre. Interestingly, the State unit of the Lok Jan Shakti has been organising agitations against the BJP-HVC government. Of late, non-BJP constituents of the NDA in Himachal Pradesh have taken contradictory positions on several issues vis-a-vis the BJP.

The HLM, which comprises the CPI(M), the Janata Dal (Secular), the Lok Jan Shakti, the Samajwadi Party and some regional secular parties, has been quite vocal in criticising the economic policies of the Dhumal government. The Morcha's viability will be tested on the basis of how successfully it can launch joint struggles in the State. The emergence of such a Morcha became inevitable given the anti-incumbency factor operating against both the BJP-HVC at the State level and the Congress(I) at the municipal corporation level.

FOR the past 16 years, the Shimla Municipal Corporation has been a Congress(I) stronghold. The level of confidence of the Congress(I) has gone up following the party's victories in the Chandigarh and Delhi municipal corporation polls. The party is expected to win, but, as Congress Legislature Party (CLP) leader Virbhadra Singh put it, only with a "workable majority". Factionalism may be one of the reasons for this modest expectation. Even while denying the existence of factions in the party, Virbhadra Singh said that problems in the State unit started after the organisational elections in 2001. The CLP leader told Frontline that in the corporation polls, the allocation of the ticket had not been made properly. Informed sources in the Congress(I) confirmed that only if Virbhadra Singh and Pradesh Congress Committee president Vidya Stokes, who lead the two major factions in the State unit, worked together could the party win in the Corporation and Assembly polls.

The BJP too has its share of problems. The spat between Dhumal and Union Minister for Consumer Affairs Shanta Kumar has brought factionalism in the party to the fore. Recently, Shanta Kumar criticised the Narendra Modi government in Gujarat and the storming of the Orissa Assembly by Vishwa Hindu Parishad and Bajrang Dal activists. In fact, the outburst against Narendra Modi was an expression of Shanta Kumar's anger against Dhumal who is considered close to the Gujarat Chief Minister. The tensions in the BJP also reflect the conditions under which the party under Dhumal was able to form the government despite not winning a clear majority in the Assembly. It was because of the split in the Congress(I) and the support of the HVC that the party was able to form the government. Moreover, the decision of the HVC to go it alone has presented the BJP with a major worry. Speculation is rife about an HVC-Congress(I) tie-up.

The official reason for the HVC opting for an independent path is that even in the past the BJP and the HVC had not contested together. However, HVC sources pointed out that despite repeated suggestions to the BJP that the two parties fight the corporation elections jointly, there was hardly any response. Their relations had been steadily souring over the past two years. In 2001, the HVC even considered joining hands with the HLM. "We will not withdraw from the government as we are committed to supporting the NDA at the Centre as well," said HVC general secretary Sunderlal Verma. "Everyone knows that the HVC was instrumental in forming this government leaving the Congress(I) in the cold."

The BJP's coming to power in the State in 1998 was fraught with uncertainties. Virbhadra Singh, who led the Congress(I) government, dissolved the Assembly a year before his term ended so as to hold Assembly and Lok Sabha elections simultaneously. "We hoped that we could cash in on our achievements," Virbhadra Singh told Frontline. But that was not to be. In the elections held in February 1998 to the 68-member Assembly, the Congress(I) won 31 seats, the BJP 29 and the HVC four. One seat went to an independent, who belonged earlier to the Shanta Kumar faction of the BJP. (Elections were held for only 65 seats as three constituencies remained snow-bound.) The balance could be tilted by the HVC, which found itself in an enviable position. Sukh Ram, the founder of the HVC, split the party and made two of its legislators join the Himachal Kranti Morcha which merged with the BJP. The BJP now had 30 members, for one legislator had died before taking the oath. Meanwhile, the Congress(I) formed the government with 32 seats as it won the support of the lone independent. Virbhadra Singh, who had headed the government twice earlier, was sworn in Chief Minister on March 9, 1998.

But things changed dramatically as the independent went back to the BJP after the party's central leadership intervened. On March 24, 1998, the Dhumal government was sworn in with the support of the two remaining members of the HVC. The BJP also managed to win over one Congress(I) legislator. After the Assembly elections for the remaining three seats were held, the BJP got the support of 33 members, including three of the HVC and the lone independent member. Later, the strength of the BJP and its allies grew to 39 as the alliance won two seats vacated by the Congress(I).

However, there has been growing dissidence in the coalition government in the past two years. In 2000, five BJP legislators, four of them Ministers, accused the government of corruption. Dhumal removed them from the Ministry but later took them back following the intervention of the central leadership. One of their demands was the removal of HVC nominee Mohinder Singh. Dhumal acceded to this and thus alienated the HVC. In 2001, BJP dissidents demanded the removal of Narendra Modi who had been appointed by the central leadership to take charge of party affairs in Himachal Pradesh.

For the BJP, this has been the first time since 1977 that it has been able to complete four years in office. The previous governments of Shanta Kumar in 1982 and 1990 could not complete their terms. Highlighting the comparatively long tenure of his government, Dhumal invited Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee to Shimla on March 24, the day the BJP-HVC government completed four years in office.

It is the economic policies of the Dhumal government that have come under attack from the Congress(I) and the HLM. Rakesh Singha, Shimla district secretary of the CPI(M) and a former MLA, told Frontline that the steep hikes in electricity rates effected for domestic consumers while giving concessions to industry, the winter surcharge on electricity rates, and the service charges on health and education had increased the financial burden of the working class and the middle class. Kashmir Singh Thakur, a leader of the Centre of Indian Trade Unions (CITU), said that there was a lot of resentment among the people as the government was indulging in nepotism. He alleged that relatives of Ministers were appointed in government posts, including university jobs. The number of the educated unemployed had increased though Chief Minister Dhumal told Frontline that the figures were inflated ones.

The Dhumal Ministry is confident that despite the resentment among the people, the BJP will get a majority both in the Shimla corporation polls and in the Assembly elections. "It is all about strategy. The Budget will not be an issue," said J.P. Nadda, Health Minister. Nadda said that the service charges imposed would improve the overall state of health services. However, a senior functionary of the People's Science Movement told Frontline that while government employees could get their medical bills reimbursed, the same could hardly be said of those who were not in a position to afford even Re.1 for the prescription slip.

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