A campaign without content

Print edition : March 14, 2003

In Himachal Pradesh, the Congress(I) and the Bharatiya Janata Party focussed mainly on non-issues, pushing the real economic issues to the background.

in Mandi and Kangra

State Congress president Vidya Stokes addressing an election rally in Mandi.-BIRBAL SHARMA

THE party that wins the majority of the 10 seats in Mandi district and the 16 seats in Kangra district may well have the upper hand in the Himachal Pradesh Assembly, and naturally political parties have a lot of stake in the contests in these northern constituencies. Both the Congress(I) and the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party have been historically keen to retain or gain the seats in this belt, though the latter has been more successful in this matter in recent times. But the presence of a third party, the Himachal Vikas Congress (HVC) of former Union Telecommunications Minister Sukh Ram, has altered the equations to the disadvantage of both the national parties.

The Congress(I) has an edge, owing to anti-incumbency and other factors related to the performance of the outgoing BJP-HVC coalition government. Besides, the Congress(I) has traditionally had a hold in the Shimla, Sirmaur and Solan Assembly segments. It is also noteworthy that the two main leaders in the State, Pradesh Congress Committee president Vidya Stokes and Congress Legislature Party leader Virbhadra Singh, hail from this region.

Meanwhile, the HVC is leaving no stone unturned to make its presence felt, at least in Mandi district. Addressing an election rally in the Nachan segment in Mandi, Sukh Ram cautioned the people that if the Congress(I) was elected, the power centre would shift to Shimla and were the BJP to form the government, the power centre would shift to either Palampur or Hamirpur. The latter was an oblique reference to Union Minister Shanta Kumar and Chief Minister P.K. Dhumal respectively. Mandi's interests, the HVC leader emphasised, would therefore be ignored. The HVC has targeted both the BJP and the Congress in its campaign but with more emphasis on the latter and in particular Virbhadra Singh. But the `Sukh Ram magic' may not be that effective this time round. In 1998, Sukh Ram had projected himself as the next Chief Minister and impressed upon the electorate that Mandi would benefit greatly if the HVC were to form the government. However, that did not happen, though the HVC was part of the coalition government headed by the BJP. In order to protect the HVC from the anti-incumbency impact, Sukh Ram began to criticise the government six months ago and even got the two Ministers of the party to resign from the government. His attempts to arrive at a seat-sharing deal with the Congress(I) and the BJP did not work.

Nearly 408 candidates are contesting in the elections, the run-up to which saw several senior leaders of the Congress(I) and the BJP actively participating in the campaigning. While the Congress and the BJP have put up candidates in all constituencies, the HVC is contesting in 50 seats. The contest will be bipolar in the majority of constituencies and triangular where there are strong contenders from the HVC or the Left parties or where powerful rebels are present. There are some significant triangular contests where the Left parties, notably the Communist Party of India (Marxist), are in the fray. The Communist Party of India (CPI) has also put up candidates in districts. However, the Left will be able to pose a serious challenge only in the Shimla seat where the BJP is in the third position. There is a strong likelihood of a repeat of last time's results, in which no party got a clear majority. This time round, the Congress(I) is better poised to secure a majority, though not with huge margins. There is no visible wave in favour of the government's policies; neither is there a strong anti-incumbency sentiment. It is in this situation that the HVC and independents may find a crucial role to play.

There was not much difference in the vote share of the BJP and the Congress(I) in the previous elections. While the Congress(I) got 43.51 per cent of the votes polled, the BJP secured 39.02 per cent. The HVC, which won five seats, secured 9.63 per cent of the votes polled. It is evident that the HVC's vote share in the 1998 elections came largely from the Congress(I)'s vote bank. This time round, the HVC's vote share is likely to be eroded. The vote share of independents is also likely to come down.

THE Congress(I) managed to win the attention of the electorate in the first round of campaigning itself by launching an aggressive campaign around the property allegedly owned in Jalandhar by Dhumal. Punjab Chief Minister Captain Amarinder Singh has been a key player in this campaign, which has largely revolved around the issue of lack of transparency. The charge of Dhumal owning property has been one way of convincing people that his interests lay elsewhere, in Punjab. Although the BJP has refuted the charge, its manner of dealing with them has been rather peculiar. Instead of convincing the electorate about the baselessness of the charge, it levelled charges of corruption against the Punjab Chief Minister and two of his ministerial colleagues.

In response, the BJP raked up the issue of banning cow slaughter in the country and the controversial Ayodhya issue. Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee, in his first election rally, held at Mandi on February 20, raised the issues, emphasising that the party was for the construction of a temple at the site where the Babri Masjid once stood. It is not surprising that the BJP had to resort to emotive issues since the party failed to get a positive response on the slogan of Vikaas (development) espoused by it.

It is felt that the political parties are not adequately addressing the real issues of unemployment, job losses, roads, irrigation, poverty and inflation. For the ordinary person, the trebling of the price of kerosene, the levying of user charges in hospitals, or the steep escalation in the prices of essential commodities in the last five years is not a small issue. Of late, the two main political parties have exploited regionalism, both inter-State and intra-State, to the hilt. The issue of locals versus outsiders has also been a festering wound that can be exploited for wrong reasons, obfuscating the real economic issues.

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