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Uphill task

Print edition : Dec 21, 2007

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Factionalism and non-performance will make the Himachal Pradesh election a tightrope walk for both the main parties.

in ShimlaChief Minister Virbhadra

BEFORE the February 2003 Assembly elections in Himachal Pradesh, Bharatiya Janata Party leader M. Venkaiah Naidu had declared in an interview to a news website that the electoral race was like a quarterfinal before the finals, that is, the Lok Sabha elections of 2004. The BJP was supremely confident of winning the Assembly elections in not only Himachal Pradesh but also those in Rajasthan, Delhi, Madhya Pradesh and Chhattisgarh that were due later that year. The party campaigned hard in Himachal Pradesh since it felt it had a natural advantage in the State. The National Democratic Alliance government led by Atal Bihari Vajpayee, the BJPs most charismatic leader, was in office at the Centre and the party was confident that the slogan of India Shining, would pay rich dividends all over the country. But it got a rude shock when the results were out. It lost the quarterfinal. In 2004, it lost the finals too, at the Centre.

It is the fourth year of the Congress-led United Progressive Alliance government at the Centre now and the Himachal elections could once again prove to be a litmus test of the popularity of the Central government. Although the State has had more Congress governments than BJP (or Jan Sangh) ones, since its formation in 1966, the voters have not voted any party to power for two consecutive terms.

And it is this factor that gives the BJP an advantage in the coming elections despite the fact that its performance as the main Opposition party in the State has not been exactly outstanding. It is ridden by factionalism down to the grassroots level and prominent leaders, former Chief Ministers Prem Kumar Dhumal and Shanta Kumar, view each other as adversaries. Even as BJP national president Rajnath Singh declared Dhumal chief ministerial candidate, attempts to mollify Shanta Kumar were set into motion. After all, the party could ill-afford to annoy the veteran leader who had a stronghold in the Kangra region, where the BJP had performed poorly in 2003 of the 16 seats here, the BJP could win only four and the Congress took the rest. Moreover, the party could not win a single seat in the eight Assembly segments in Shimla, considered a bastion of the Congress, especially Chief Minister Virbhadra Singh.

This time round, the BJP is making no mistake. Fourteen seats in the Kangra belt have been allocated primarily to Shanta Kumars supporters. Further, on November 28, Dhumal called on the septuagenarian leader at his residence in Palampur reportedly to convince him to pacify potential rebel candidates. According to a political observer, factionalism is rampant in the BJP.

Shanta Kumar is the first non-Congress Chief Minister to be elected, in 1977. His popularity took a beating in 1992 owing to his policies that went against the interest of government employees and farmers. During an agitation over the support price, three apple farmers were felled by police bullets. Shanta Kumar also introduced the No Work, No Pay policy for government employees primarily as a move to pre-empt strikes. He has won four out of the five times he had contested in the Assembly elections and was also a Minister at the Centre in the 1990s.

A chief ministerial aspirant in every election, Shanta Kumar is not in the fray this time. He introduced the No Work, No Pay policy for government employees. It was like asking them to eat dal, after they lived on chicken during the Congress regimes. He is very unpopular among them. The BJP could not have taken the risk of declaring him its chief ministerial candidate. Besides, he would have alienated our voters in Upper Himachal, said a party insider.

Former BJP Chief

Satpal Jain, the BJP office-bearer in charge of elections, told Frontline that the overall situation was favourable to the party. The party has fielded 11 new candidates and renominated 17 of the sitting legislators and two former Speakers of the State Assembly. The party is planning to campaign on issues ranging from the bomb blasts in Uttar Pradesh to Nandigram to corruption.

But the problems that the BJP faces are not confined to appeasing senior leaders. In Kullu, a former Minister and a former Member of Parliament, who were denied the ticket, have made their displeasure known by joining hands with the Bahujan Samaj Party, which for the first time is contesting all the seats in the State. The State convener of the BSP is a former Congressman, Vijay Singh Mankotia, who has resolved to bring down the Virbhadra Singh government. Mankotia was unhappy that Virbhadra Singh kept him out after the passage of the Bill limiting the size of State Cabinets to one-tenth of the strength of State Assemblies.

Mankotia joined the BSP in July. In fact, the party has absorbed some of the better-known rebels from both the Congress and the BJP. It is now focussing on Dalit votes. Not surprisingly, Mankotia has promised, in the partys election manifesto, reservations for Dalits and Other Backward Classes apart from five lakh jobs to the unemployed. The State has a Dalit population of 26 per cent, the highest (as a percentage of the State population) in the country after Punjab. But the leadership of the BSP is hardly Dalit. Neither has the BSP raised issues pertaining to Dalits in the last five years. Most of its candidates are also non-Dalits. In 2003, the BSP had contested 28 seats but drew a blank.

The Congress, rather than concentrating on setting its own house in order, is focussing more on this rivalry between the two top BJP leaders. Both the national parties have retained the bulk of their sitting legislators for the 65 seats that go to the polls on December 19. This has been done also to mitigate the influence of rebel candidates contesting the elections. In fact, in 2003, independents, mostly rebels from the Congress, cornered nearly 12.5 per cent of the vote share. At least four of the independent candidates who won the elections last time have been made associate members of the Congress and have also been given the ticket, which triggered another bout of rebellion in the party.

Some heavyweight candidates have been denied the ticket. In Arki, the sitting legislator and Deputy Speaker Dharampal Thakur was dumped to make way for a political greenhorn, Prakash Chandra Karad, whose sole claim to fame was his proximity to the Congress leadership at the Centre. Karad, who is a Dalit, would be contesting from a predominantly Rajput- and Brahmin-populated constituency. Predictably, Dharampal Thakur has declared his intention to contest as an independent. It is not going to be easy for Karad. Firstly, he is not from Arki and secondly, the Dalit votes here are negligible, said a Congress worker from Arki.

Coupled with the anti-incumbency factor, the denial of the party ticket either to sitting MLAs or to those who contested unsuccessfully last time could queer the pitch for the party in at least a dozen constituencies. I really dont think the anti-incumbency factor is going to be a problem as we have done a lot of development work, Viplove Thakur, Himachal Pradesh Congress Committee (HPCC) president, told Frontline. She ruled out any major rebellion in the party ranks. She added that it was difficult to please everybody but the party was trying hard to mollify those who were unhappy with the ticket distribution.

While the Congress leadership has been insisting that winnability has been the main criterion for seat distribution, the rank and file of the party is not convinced. Party sources in Shimla said that the only reason the Congress might fare poorly would be the selection of non-deserving candidates such as those who were favoured by the high command or the wives and brothers of party leaders. The HPCC chiefs brother Nikhil Rajour is the party nominee from Jaswa constituency.

It is clear that the election is not going to be a cakewalk for either the Congress or the BJP. One thing that has become apparent is that the degree of public resentment the BJP faced last time was way above what the ruling Congress is facing now.

However, issues such as unemployment, massive contractualisation of employment in the new industries as well as in government, the agrarian crisis, paucity of drinking water in the State capital and the scrapping of posts in government departments have resulted in high levels of dissatisfaction among different sections of people. Of the 15 lakh unemployed persons in the State nine lakh are registered as unemployed.

There are reportedly 400 vacant posts at the prestigious Indira Gandhi Medical College in Shimla. Several private colleges offering Bachelor of Education (B.Ed) courses at an annual fee of up to Rs.50,000 per student has been opened in recent years. State investment in health and education is almost stagnant.

These issues have been raised by the Left parties in the State, notably the Communist Party of India (Marxist). In 2003, in the triangular contest for the Shimla Assembly segment, the CPI(M) candidate Sanjay Chauhan was runner-up while the BJP candidate was a poor third. This time, the BJP has fielded a Member of the Rajya Sabha, Suresh Bharadwaj, in Shimla.

BSP convener Vijay

Sanjay Chauhan, who is contesting once again, told Frontline that neither of the two main parties have raised issues of critical importance. There is not much of a difference between the policies of the two parties, he said. The Virbhadra Singh government had drastically cut down the social sector expenditure after enacting the Fiscal Responsibility Management Bill in 2004.

This piece of legislation was supported by the BJP. He said that the resettlement of around 2,000 families who had been displaced by the Bhakra and Pong dam projects are yet to be resettled. Similarly, in the several hydel projects under way people have not been either compensated at all or paid adequately.

The Congress government is accused by the Opposition of not doing anything in the last five years to resolve Shimlas drinking water shortage. The government was equally apathetic to the problems of street vendors and slum-dwellers, it is said. It has not kept its promise of regularising the slums that housed the working population of Shimla.

There is no apparent anti-Congress wave in the State. It is quite clear that it is not going to be easy for Virbhadra Singh to retain the massive mandate he got last time. He is going to bear the brunt of the anti-incumbency factor to a large extent. The electorate actually does not have much of a choice between the BJP and the Congress, but the highly aware and literate population of the State always ensures that no party or candidate can afford to be complacent and take its support for granted.

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