Tough going in Himachal

Print edition : February 28, 2003

Both the Congress(I) and the BJP, the major players, face extreme pulls and pressures within, in the process of ticket distribution. And Sukh Ram's Himachal Vikas Congress could mar the prospects of both the parties in individual constituencies.

in Shimla and Theog

Himachal Pradesh Chief Minister Prem Kumar Dhumal.-

WITH the elections to the 10th Assembly of Himachal Pradesh barely two weeks away (on February 26), the situation in the State is quite murky. Factionalism and open rebellion characterise the state of both the national parties in the fray. The Congress(I) has an edge over the Bharatiya Janata Party given the anti-incumbency mood and performance-related factors. But the extent to which it will be able to capitalise on these and others such as the open dissidence in the BJP's ranks will depend on whether it will be able to set its own house in order.

The outgoing BJP-Himachal Vikas Congress (HVC) coalition government has been in the throes of crises ever since it assumed power. Four Ministers who levelled graft charges against the Dhumal government were thrown out, only to be taken back. The main Opposition party, the Congress(I), has had its share of factionalism too. The fissures in the party, however, have not been as overt as in the BJP. One reason for this is that factionalism in the Congress(I) has been so endemic and chronic that it is no more a novelty. But in the case of the BJP, it is a relatively new phenomenon -- and it has manifested itself in an aggressive form. Corruption has become a big issue after the Congress(I) accused Chief Minister Prem Kumar Dhumal of acquiring property worth crores of rupees in Punjab. This has been refuted by the BJP and defamation suits have been filed against Punjab's Congress(I) Chief Minister Amarinder Singh and Congress leader Motilal Vora.

Within the Congress(I), one faction is led by Congress Legislative Party leader and former Chief Minister Virbhadra Singh. The opposing section does not have a leader as such but is generally considered to be aligned with Pradesh Congress Committee president Vidya Stokes. The BJP, on the other hand, has Union Rural Development Minister Shanta Kumar on one side and Dhumal on the other.

And thrown in between is the HVC chief Sukh Ram, who was hoping for an alliance with either of the two national parties and had made his preference for the Congress(I), the party from which he had broken away, rather clear. However, the alliance did not work out, as Virbhadra Singh was opposed to any arrangement with the HVC although the PCC chief was not averse to a seat sharing arrangement. Vidya Stokes told Frontline that a seat-sharing arrangement with the HVC would have done her party no harm. By not entering into one, the Congress(I) faced the risk of being the greater loser, she said.

The HVC, entering the fray for the second time after its formation in 1997, could mar the prospects of both the BJP and the Congress(I) as disappointed ticket aspirants from both parties may contest on an HVC platform, if not as independents. More than 500 nominations have been filed for the 68 seats. In the 1998 elections, a total of 369 candidates were in the fray. Elections for 65 seats are to be held on February 26 while the three snow-bound constituencies of Lahaul-Spiti, Kinnaur and Bharmour - all reserved - will have them in June.

The other parties in the fray include the Communist Party of India (Marxist), the Communist Party of India, the Lok Janshakti Party, the Samajwadi Party and regional parties like the Loktantrik Morcha (Himachal Pradesh). Interestingly, the factionalism in the two main parties has led to the formation of fronts like Mitra Milan, a breakaway group of the BJP. No such front with Congress(I) origins has emerged.

Himachal Vikas Congress president Sukh Ram releases his party's manifesto in Shimla.-

Mitra Milan is led by the former MLA from Solan, Mahendra Sofat, and by Narender Thakur, son of Thakur Jagdeo, a prominent BJP leader. Sofat was a member of a short-lived Shanta Kumar Ministry. Most of the Mitra Milan members earlier belonged to the Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh. Mitra Milan is expected to put up candidates in at least a third of the seats.

Resentment over ticket allocation has been more acute in the BJP than in the Congress(I), although BJP leaders maintain that the situation is under control. The party has denied the ticket to at least five sitting MLAs; they will now either contest as independents or put forth their representatives, affecting the chances of victory of the BJP in the constituencies concerned. Mitra Milan, like the HVC, may not win a significant number of seats but may be in a position to tilt the scales during the government formation process.

Similarly, but in a less overt fashion, Virbhadra Singh is supposed to have put up his supporters in most constituencies, including in Kumarsain, where the PCC president is contesting. Vidya Stokes, who had previously contested successfully from Theog in Shimla district, will contest from Kumarsain, considered a "safe" seat for her. This has sent mixed signals to Congress(I) voters who had expected her to contest from Theog. A former BJP legislator, Rakesh Verma, is contesting as an independent and is perceived to be a Virbhadra Singh supporter. He has defeated Stokes in the past. One of her supporters in Theog said: "Stokes may have doubted her victory from Theog but there has been no doubt in the minds of her supporters." A triangular contest is expected in Theog, primarily between the Congress(I) and the independent candidate, with the BJP in the third position. The Congress(I) candidate, Rajinder Verma, a young man with a clean image, elicited a lot of enthusiasm at the time of filing his nomination papers. This conveyed the impression that Stokes has kept her support base intact despite the brewing dissidence.

The electoral battle in the Assembly segments of Shimla, Theog and Jubbal-Kotkhai in the Shimla Lok Sabha constituency will be interesting. It will be a triangular fight in all three. The CPI(M) candidate, Sanjay Chauhan, is a tough contender for the Shimla seat. This seat was won for the CPI(M) in 1993 by Rakesh Singha, who is now the district secretary of the Centre of Indian Trade Unions.

The Congress(I) candidate, Harbhajan Singh Bhajji, who had lost three times in the past, is perceived to have the backing of Anand Sharma, All India Congress Committee member. He may not get the support of the Virbhadra faction in the district. The BJP candidate, Ganesh Dutt, is a newcomer, one whose candidature was opposed by several senior leaders. The sitting BJP legislator from Shimla, Narendra Bragta, the Horticulture Minister, has shifted to Jubbal-Kotkhai where he faces the grandson of veteran Congress leader Ram Lal Thakur. Here the HVC is also in a position to make an impact.

In Kangra district, which has 16 constituencies, the largest number for a single district in the State, the feud between factions of both parties is visible. While seven seats have been given to Virbhadra loyalists, five have gone to the anti-Virbhadra camp. There are rebels as well, who may mar the chances of the Congress(I) here. The Congress(I) rejected five aspirants from Kangra who had unsuccessfully contested in 1998, while retaining most of the old faces.

The stakes are high for the BJP in Kangra, considered a stronghold of the party. Of the 16 seats, the BJP had won 12 in the last elections. Mitra Milan is expected to affect the prospects of the BJP; it has nominated two candidates from the Shahpur and Pragpur segments who were denied the BJP ticket. From Kangra itself, Vidyasagar, a former Agriculture Minister, was denied the ticket and he contests as an independent against the official BJP nominee, Rattan Jagdamba, who had won with a comfortable margin last time.

In the Guler segment, too, there has been significant opposition to the official BJP nominee. It is significant that while in the Congress(I), individuals have moved out or loyalties are shared between two factions, in the BJP, which is a cadre-based party, the fissures are more serious. The sitting legislator from Kinnaur, Chet Ram Negi, was not re-nominated. In the presence of this correspondent, the legislator and his supporters openly vented their ire and resentment at O.P. Kohli, who is in charge of the party's affairs in the State. Kohli sought to explain away such outbursts as a consequence of expectations that the party was going to form the government once again.

In the Kotlehar seat in Una district, the outgoing Deputy Speaker of the Assembly, Ram Das Malanger, having been denied the ticket by the BJP, will contest as an independent. In Una, district BJP unit members had raised the banner of revolt against the official candidate. In Nalagarh too, contenders from both the Dhumal and Shanta Kumar camps are campaigning. There is open defiance in six constituencies. More Shanta Kumar loyalists have been given the ticket in Kangra compared to those belonging to the Dhumal camp. Other players in this belt are the HVC, the LJP and the Loktantrik Party (Himachal Pradesh). Kangra is considered a Shanta Kumar stronghold. The Union Minister has strengthened his hold in the district by being instrumental in according tribal status to the Gaddi community, whose members constitute 6 per cent of the district's population. The caste factor plays a major role in Kangra, especially involving the votes of the Other Backward Classes. It will prove crucial in at least eight constituencies. In the Kangra region, OBCs constitute about 25 per cent of the population. Rajputs form 24 per cent and Brahmins around 15 per cent. The Rajput vote will mostly go to the Congress(I), while the BJP should get the Brahmin, a part of the OBC and the Gaddi vote, mainly due to Shanta Kumar's presence. Unlike South Himachal (or Upper Himachal as it is called) where regionalism plays a dominant role, caste affiliations are important in North Himachal (or Lower Himachal).

In Mandi district, which has the second largest number of seats after Kangra, it will be a triangular contest with the BJP in the third position. The HVC will play a major role in at least six Assembly segments here. Sukh Ram, while releasing his manifesto in Shimla, declared that the elections would throw up a hung Assembly. Corruption, the HVC founder told Frontline earlier, would not be an issue. In the 1998 elections, the HVC had managed to damage the prospects of the Congress(I) in at least 13 seats. The party had come in the second place in four seats. It may be a replay this time - u nless the electorate perceives the HVC as having been part and parcel of the outgoing government and holds it equally responsible for the failures of the Dhumal administration.

In Dharmasala, the HVC may mar the prospects of the Congress(I). Here, Virbhadra loyalist Chandresh Kumari faces HVC nominee Ram Saroop Sharma, who had contested unsuccessfully on the Congress(I) ticket last time and was denied the party ticket. He resigned from the primary membership of the party. In Dharampur, the battle will be between Mohinder Chaudhary of the Loktantrik Morcha and the Congress candidate. Chaudhary, a former HVC Minister, had been expelled from the party following pressure from BJP dissidents. In six of the total of 10 segments in Mandi, the Congress(I) and the HVC face each other. In three seats the BJP and the Congress face each other and in one seat a triangular fight is expected.

The Nahan seat in Sirmaur district will witness a triangular contest involving the Congress(I), the BJP and the LJP. Shyama Sharma, the BJP candidate, was not the original choice. Her name was declared only after a rebellion in the ranks. In the Hamirpur Lok Sabha constituency, of the five segments the Congress(I) may win two.

Triangular contests are on the cards in Theog, Shimla, Nahan, Jubbal-Kotkhai, Mandi (Sadar), Bilaspur, Kot Kehloor and Dharampur, while a four-cornered contest is due in Kulu where there are more than one BJP rebel are in the fray. Said a political observer: "The situation can be such that they won't let the official candidate contest."

Campaigning was expected to pick up momentum in the second week of February. Almost all the national leaders of the BJP were scheduled to address rallies across the State. Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee is expected on February 20. Apart from raking up issues of national security and the alleged soft stance of the Congress(I) on terrorism, the party expects to focus on development issues and the Centre's substantial contribution to the State's kitty during Dhumal's tenure. It is unlikely that Hindutva will be a major poll plank: for the electorate does not seem to be interested in the rhetoric of hate. Narendra Modi's name has not figured significantly among the campaign issues raised by the BJP. This may also keep Shanta Kumar, a Modi rival, mollified. Modi's proximity to Dhumal is well known.

The Congress(I) has launched an aggressive campaign. Party president Sonia Gandhi is expected to reach the State on February 14 for a round of campaigning. A host of senior leaders of the party, including Chief Ministers, are expected to campaign, too. Anand Sharma, Congress spokesperson, said that the National Democratic Alliance government's hollow campaign on curbing terrorism will be exposed. Corruption in recruitments, the debt trap and unemployment are issues that the Congress(I) intends to project, but so far it seems to be focussed specifically on exposing Dhumal's assets in Punjab.

Himachal Pradesh has a very high rate of literacy. But avenues for employment are limited. The number of the registered unemployed was 10 lakhs out of a labour force of 27 lakhs, according to figures provided by Mohar Singh, State secretary of the CPI(M). Although the primary occupation in the State was agriculture, most of the land holdings constitute less than one acre. The employment situation worsened under the Dhumal regime. While a freeze on fresh recruitments in government jobs has been in place, a lot of people have got jobs through private agencies outside the State. The Dhumal government has claimed that the Centre helped the State in financial terms to a significant extent over the last five years. But the people have not felt the benefits of that largesse. Nor has it been reflected in the Plan expenditure of the government.

For most of the hydel projects under way, labour has been brought from outside the State, causing resentment among the populace. There is also concern about the ecological impact of these power projects. User-charges in government hospitals, the handing over of such hospitals to self-financing societies, recruitment of paramedical staff through agencies outside the State and privatisation of services such as the Home Guards are some of the issues that have rankled with the people. There is also a general feeling that the economic interests of Upper Himachal have been ignored. These issues may influence the outcome of the elections.

The BJP will raise issues of regionalism as it has little else to talk about, said Sanjay Chauhan, CPI(M) candidate from Shimla. He added that corruption and unemployment would be major issues too. Revenue receipts have steadily declined in the last few years and loan liabilities have reached unprecedented heights. The BJP government produced a White Paper in December 1999 underscoring the severe revenue deficit and loan liabilities. There are several issues at stake, but the electorate does not see the major national parties raising them. Both the Congress(I) and the BJP are aware that the electorate is in a tough mood.

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