The Assembly round

Print edition : March 21, 1998
S.K. PANDE *One of the BJP's newly-elected MLAs died.

THE Assembly election results - which threw up a hung House - overshadowed the outcome of the elections to the four parliamentary seats in Himachal Pradesh.

A minority Congress(I) Government assumed office on March 6 under the chief ministership of Virbhadra Singh. The Congress(I) won 31 of the 65 seats where polling was held. The BJP won 29 seats, but one of its newly-elected MLAs died, and its effective strength was reduced to 28. It claimed the support of the four MLAs of the Himachal Vikas Congress (HVC) of the scandal-tainted former Union Minister for Communications Sukh Ram and of one independent.

Both the Congress(I) and the BJP staked their claim to form a government. The BJP and the HVC paraded their MLAs at the Raj Bhavan and the HVC MLAs gave a written declaration of their offer of support to the BJP.

On March 6, however, Governor V.S. Rama Devi invited caretaker Chief Minister Virbhadra Singh to form a government and prove his majority by March 16. A nine-member Ministry was sworn in the same day.

The independent MLA, Ramesh Chander, who had initially offered his support to the BJP and then claimed that he was supporting neither the BJP nor the Congress(I), was among those sworn in. Only hours earlier, he had told the Governor that he was being harassed by Congress(I) workers to force him to support their party.

The BJP and the HVC described the Governor's action in inviting the Congress(I) to form the government as "unconstitutional". Rama Devi, however, said that she had no choice but to invite Virbhadra Singh as he was the leader of the single largest party in the 68-member House.

The BJP announced that it would launch a State-wide agitation in protest against the "unconstitutional and undemocratic" action of the Governor.

The election results came as a double shock for the Congress(I). The party had expected to improve on its strength in the previous Assembly, but found itself reduced to a minority status, although it emerged as the single largest party. And it won only one of the three parliamentary seats where polling was held (the fourth, Mandi, will go to the polls on June 21).

The election results point to the fact that the Congress(I) support base has been eroded - largely by the BJP, and to a certain extent by the HVC.

The BJP virtually swept the Hamirpur belt, and had an edge in most Assembly seats in the Kangra region. Not only did Sukh Ram win the Mandi Assembly seat but his party seriously damaged the Congress(I)'s prospects in Unna, Mandi and Kangra districts.

This is the first time that Himachal Pradesh has had a hung Assembly. And there is a pointer that the elections might mark a return to the two-party system, although Sukh Ram's party is a factor to reckon with.

What is behind the erosion in the Congress(I)'s tally - from 52 in 1993 to 31 now? The party was the first to kick off its campaign, and Virbhadra Singh campaigned extensively; Sonia Gandhi too campaigned for the party.

The BJP appeared to be riven by dissensions - the factions loyal to former Chief Minister Shanta Kumar and State BJP president P.K. Dhumal were at loggerheads. But the Congress(I) faced an undercurrent of anti-incumbency sentiment. It also had to defend itself from the BJP and the HVC simultaneously.

Beneath the surface, however, other changes took place in the fortnight before the elections. The projection of Dhumal as the BJP leader in the final phase gave the party an edge in the Hamirpur area.

Analysts are now debating whether Virbhadra Singh blundered in going in for early elections to the Assembly. But other observers say that had the Congress(I) opted for elections later, it might have been the worse off for it, with the anti-incumbency factor growing.

Most of the members of Virbhadra Singh's earlier Ministry were re-elected. Among the prominent Congress(I) losers were Tourism Minister Vijay Singh Mankotia, Horticulture Minister S.P. Thakur and K.S. Pathania. The victory of the controversial Health Minister and Congress(I) leader Ram Lal Thakur came as a surprise.

For now, all eyes are on the March 16 floor test. Virbhadra Singh said that he was confident of proving his majority long before that date, but the Congress(I) has a job on its hands in mustering a majority.

After the floor test, the focus will shift to the polling in Mandi parliamentary constituency. The contest could be a close one, and unless behind-the-scene deals takes place, it might be a triangular contest. All things considered, Himachal Pradesh appears set for a period of political instability.

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