A rough ride for the BJP

Published : Feb 14, 2003 00:00 IST

Chief Minister Prem Kumar Dhumal leading the `Vishwas Yatra' taken out by the BJP as part of its election campaign in Himachal Pradesh. -

Chief Minister Prem Kumar Dhumal leading the `Vishwas Yatra' taken out by the BJP as part of its election campaign in Himachal Pradesh. -

The lack of unity in the opposition camp is likely to help the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party tide over the anti-incumbency factor in Himachal Pradesh.

THE electoral battle in Himachal Pradesh on February 26 will be primarily between the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party led by Chief Minister Prem Kumar Dhumal and the Congress(I). Although the Himachal Pradesh Assembly has 68 seats, polling will take place only for 65 seats; polling in three constituencies will be held in June as they are snow-bound at present.

The elections in Himachal Pradesh would be watched keenly as the verdict could be a pointer to the electoral mood in the States going to polls later this year and early next year. The BJP, buoyant after its electoral harvest in Gujarat, hopes for a similar outcome in the State despite the prevalence of a strong anti-incumbency mood. Massive unemployment, corruption and worsening fiscal situation and the levying of user charges on services are some of the issues that are expected to erode the BJP's electoral base.

The Congress(I) plans to base its campaign on issues such as corruption and unemployment and the BJP will highlight its "achievements" in the area of development. It is widely believed that a united effort by the Congress(I) can prevent the BJP from coming back to power. In any event, this is the first time that the party has managed to serve a full term in office in the State.

The Himachal Vikas Congress (HVC) of former Union Telecommunications Minister Sukh Ram is also in the reckoning. Both the BJP and the Congress(I) cannot afford to ignore the HVC, which is capable of creating a dent in their vote banks. Sukh Ram has been sending feelers to both the parties, especially the Congress(I), with which he claims to have an "ideological" understanding. Sukh Ram is aware that an understanding with his party will give either the Congress(I) or the BJP an edge in the contest.

In the 1998 Assembly elections, the HVC, which had been newly formed, secured 12 per cent of the vote, and helped the BJP come to power. In order to prevent the Congress(I) from forming the government under the leadership of former Chief Minister Virbhadra Singh, the HVC "gave" its two legislators to the BJP. As Chief Minister, Virbhadra Singh, had recommended the dissolution of the Assembly a year before his term ended so that the Assembly polls coincided with the Lok Sabha elections. Of the 65 seats for which elections were held, the Congress(I) won 31 seats, the BJP 29, the HVC four and independents one. Sukh Ram split the HVC and merged the two-member `breakaway' Himachal Kranti Morcha with the BJP. As a result, the BJP's strength went up to 31. However, the death of a member before the oath-taking ceremony brought down its tally to 30. Meanwhile, the Congress(I) managed to win the support of the independent member, who originally was a member of the BJP faction led by former Chief Minister Shanta Kumar. With the support of 32 members Virbhadra Singh was sworn in Chief Minister on March 9, 1998.

The situation changed drastically when the independent member withdrew his support to the Congress(I) following the intervention of the BJP's Central leadership. The two remaining legislators of the HVC lent their support to the BJP, which managed to wean away a Congress(I) legislator reducing the party's strength to 30. The Dhumal government assumed office on March 24. Currently, the BJP has 38 seats, the Congress(I) 26 and the HVC two. One member is an independent and another has been declared `unattached'. It is for the first time since 1982 that the BJP has been able to complete four years in office in Himachal Pradesh. The governments led by Shanta Kumar in 1982 and 1990 were short-lived.

The HVC has made it clear that its contribution has to be recognised. The two HVC legislators who had joined the BJP government, resigned from the Cabinet and joined their parent party, sending a clear signal to the BJP that its support cannot be taken for granted. However, the electorate is likely to view the HVC's move merely as an election-time gimmick.

Dissidence within the coalition government has been increasing steadily over the past two years. In 2000, five BJP legislators, including four Ministers, accused the government of corruption. Dhumal removed them but took them back after the Central leadership intervened. However, Dhumal had to concede their demand for the removal of HVC legislator Mohinder Singh from the Cabinet. Mohinder Singh, who was expelled from the HVC, floated the Him Loktantrik Morcha last year with the help of the Left parties in the State. However, the Morcha, which was conceived as an alternative to the Congress(I) and the BJP, did not survive. Recently, Mohinder Singh registered a new party under the name Loktantrik Morcha (Himachal Pradesh).

The Communist Party of India(Marxist) has decided to contest four seats and support anybody who can defeat the BJP.

The campaigns have begun and the BJP has launched a Vishwas Yatra in the State in order to highlight its achievements. However, dissidents within the party led by Mahendra Sofat, who is known to be close to Shanta Kumar, are taking out `padayatras' and holding `Mitra Milan' meetings, criticising the Vishwas Yatra. Gujarat Chief Minister Narendra Modi, who was in charge of the party's affairs in Himachal Pradesh but was forced to quit owing to pressure from the Shanta Kumar faction, is back as the party's "star" campaigner. Meanwhile, the Congress(I), in an effort to dispel the impression that all is not well between the Pradesh Congress Committee president Vidya Stokes and Congress(I) Legislative Party leader Virbhadra Singh, has organised several meetings in a display of unity.

Corruption will be a major issue for the Opposition - a reason why the Congress(I) is not keen to tie up with the HVC, the leader of which was tainted by corruption charges relating to a telecommunication scandal. Also, Virbhadra Singh is not prepared to forgive Sukh Ram for the events of 1998. However, Vidya Stokes has argued that the HVC should be considered a possible ally to prevent the division of the secular vote. Sukh Ram, seems keen to ally with the Congress(I). Secular forces should come together, he said. The HVC's main agenda, he told Frontline, was to redeem the State from its present financial morass. The former Congressman said that neither the Congress(I) nor the BJP had a viable fiscal policy. He expressed unhappiness with the BJP stating that while in power his party was never taken into confidence over policy issues and that the BJP's Central leadership had not intervened to correct the situation. Making clear his preference for the Congress(I), he said that most of the district-level leaders of the HVC were former Congressmen. "No party can form the government without the help of the HVC, he said.

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