BJP faces uphill battle in Himachal Pradesh as local issues eclipse national sentiments

Issues such as flood relief, Agnipath scheme, and challenges faced by apple growers make BJP’s prospects of repeating its 2019 sweep appear bleak.

Published : May 25, 2024 19:57 IST - 8 MINS READ

An elderly voter casts his vote through the postal ballot under the “voting from home” facility in Mandi on May 22.

An elderly voter casts his vote through the postal ballot under the “voting from home” facility in Mandi on May 22. | Photo Credit: RAJIV GUPTA/ANI

The BJP does not appear poised to repeat its 2019 performance in Himachal Pradesh, where it had mopped up all four parliamentary seats of Hamirpur, Kangra, Mandi, and Shimla. That victory came on the back of the Pulwama terror attack and the Balakot strikes that followed. This time, issues that touch lives and livelihoods are more likely to matter in a State with remarkable levels of literacy and general awareness.

All four constituencies will vote in the last phase on June 1. It is practically a bipolar contest between the Congress and the BJP, although the Bahujan Samaj Party is contesting all four seats.

The BJP is trying to rake up emotive issues such as the Ram temple, alleged minority appeasement by the Congress, and the abrogation of Article 370. The sense one got after talking to a cross section of voters is that it could be a fifty-fifty result, with Shimla and Mandi going to the Congress. The BJP government at the Centre was perceived as not doing enough in terms of flood relief and financial support. Besides, the Centre declined to declare the disaster a national calamity.

On the other hand, Sukhvinder Singh Sukhu’s Congress government won appreciation, especially for its rehabilitation measures following the 2023 floods that claimed 700 lives and for the implementation of the Old Pension Scheme.

The Lok Sabha election activity appears subdued, but there is unease over the perceived attempts to topple the State government and over the arrest of two Chief Ministers in the country ahead of the election. In Ghanahati, rural Shimla, the shopkeeper Leeladutt says the candidates are “barabar” (of equal strength) but adds that the BJP should not have given the party ticket to Congress rebels. “People don’t like these things in Himachal, toppling governments and the like,” he said.

Also Read | The murky political goings-on in Himachal Pradesh

Byelections to six Assembly seats—Lahaul and Spiti, Dharamsala, Sujanpur, Barsar, Gagret, and Kutlehar—are also scheduled on June 1. The Congress legislators in these six seats were disqualified for defying the party whip during a vote on a cut motion on the Budget. In February, their cross-voting resulted in the defeat of the Congress nominee in the election to the Rajya Sabha. The six are now contesting as BJP candidates from the same seats. They may find the going tough.

Online retail poses a challenge to shopkeepers like Leeladutt, many of whom are yet to recover from losses incurred during the pandemic. Suresh Sharma, another shopkeeper, rued that the “market was finished”, disposable incomes had dwindled, and spending was down.

The Agnipath factor

The Agnipath scheme for recruitment of jawans into the armed forces is a burning election issue in lower or New Himachal (Kullu, Lahaul and Spiti, Kangra, Hamirpur, and Una districts) with its high levels of migration for work. The Congress manifesto has promised to scrap the scheme if it comes to power. Kangra (where the BJP won by a record margin in 2019) and Hamirpur are home to a large number of people serving in the Army. If this helped the BJP in 2019, this time it may work against it.

Another burning issue in New Himachal is displacement and compensation, as Joginder Walia, convenor of the Bhumi Adhigrahan Prabhavit Manch, explained. Walia, who is based in Mandi district, said that in last year’s unprecedented rainfall Mandi and Kullu districts suffered the most damage. “The Beas got flooded with silt, and the gates of the dam had to be opened. There is resentment that the Centre did not help the State as much as it did in Uttarakhand after the Joshimath disaster,” he said.

He claimed that people were not compensated either for land acquired for an airport and for constructing four-lane roads. “There is resentment on this front as well,” Walia said.

He explained why the BJP’s plan to mobilise voters on the issue of Sanatana Dharma would not work: “Here, every village has its own deity, and people consider that to be most important. It is not easy to rake up communal passions in Himachal. We don’t have a significant minority population either.”

Artists perform during a Congress rally in Shimla on May 13.

Artists perform during a Congress rally in Shimla on May 13. | Photo Credit: PTI

The reserved seat of Shimla will see a tight contest, according to the Atwal brothers Gaurav and Saurav, who are Dalit Sikh migrants from Hoshiarpur in Punjab and run a tea kiosk near the Indian Institute of Advanced Studies. But the Congress candidate is likely to win because of the good work done by Raja Saheb (as the six-time Chief Minister Virbhadra Singh is called), they said. Their father, Ramkaran Atwal, a Class IV government employee, is worried about how everything from health to education is getting privatised. “Government jobs have been converted to contract jobs. It is not a good situation at all. Both parties are responsible for the state of affairs. Privatisation should stop,” he said.

Anger in the apple orchards

Such worries apart, the State’s apple growers are a disenchanted lot. Around 2.45 lakh families (some 10 lakh people) involved in apple farming have been affected by the decline in production and productivity. Sanjay Chauhan, former Mayor of Shimla, and himself an apple grower and State convenor of the Seb Utpadak Sangh (Apple Growers’ Association), recalled that in 2014 Prime Minister Narendra Modi promised to double import duties on apples, but his government lowered them instead. This hit growers hard at a time when input costs had risen steeply and climate change imhad pacted productivity.

Among other grouses is the drastic decline in the funding for research and development in horticulture. The block-level extension offices of the horticulture department are not adequately staffed. “If I have any problem in my apple orchard, there is no one to guide me. All research is being done by private fungicide and fertilizer manufacturers. Their only objective is to sell their products. We got highly subsidised fertilizer earlier from the extension centres. Not any more,” Chauhan said. He believes the issue is bound to resonate in both Mandi and Shimla.

Chauhan is also critical of what he sees as the Central government’s cavalier approach to the Market Intervention Scheme for cash crops. The State and Centre were to share the losses in equal proportion, but the Centre, he said, “finished off” the scheme in 2023-24 by drastically reducing the budget for it from Rs.1,500 crore in 2022-23 to Rs.1 lakh.

Government employees are expected to play a crucial role in the election. “If the Congress feels it won [the Assembly election] because of its abilities, it is mistaken. Employees played a big role,” said a government employee, requesting anonymity.

  • Local issues like flood relief issues, Agnipath scheme, and apple growers’ challenges are overshadowing the BJP’s nationalistic campaign themes in Himachal Pradesh.
  • The Lok Sabha election is primarily a bipolar contest between the BJP and Congress, with voter dissatisfaction potentially favoring the Congress in key constituencies.
  • The BJP’s prospects of repeating its 2019 clean sweep appear bleak due to perceived inadequate disaster response and economic concerns among the electorate.

BJP banking on Modi

The BJP seems to be banking entirely on Narendra Modi in this election. “People may not like the BJP candidate but feel that India needs Modi. The issues on which people vote in the Vidhan Sabha and Lok Sabha are different,” said Karan Nanda, the BJP’s chief media coordinator, in a conversation at the BJP office in Shimla. “There is a leftist design in the Congress manifesto. We are going to raise all those issues. The most effective issues for us are Ram Mandir, attacks on Sanatana Dharma, and the abrogation of Article 370,” he said. He claimed that none of the INDIA bloc leaders were campaigning outside their States. The BJP has a well-oiled organisational structure down to the booth level, he said. “We have WhatsApp pramukhs [incharge], Mann ki Baat pramukhs, women and youth pramukhs, and panna pramukhs. But the opposition does not have karyakartas [party workers] on the ground.”

There was, however, no evidence of a Modi wave among the people. But the people that Frontline spoke to thought that the last few rounds of campaigning might make all the difference. That the opposition does not have a prime ministerial face does not seem to be an important issue here, but the Congress’ lack of organisational strength is of concern. Still, parties of the INDIA bloc are campaigning jointly and drawing decent crowds.

Also Read | ‘I don’t get rattled easily’: Sukhvinder Singh Sukhu

The BJP has renominated two of its sitting MPs, Anurag Thakur in Hamirpur and Suresh Kashyap in Shimla, and fielded two newcomers in Kangra and Mandi. The Kangra nominee is Rajesh Bharadwaj, who is known for his proximity to former Chief Minister Prem Kumar Dhumal. Its candidate in Mandi is the actor Kangana Ranaut.

Incidentally, the Congress won back Mandi in 2021 in a byelection necessitated by the demise of BJP MP Ram Swaroop Sharma. Pratibha Singh, wife of Virbhadra Singh, won it for the party. Her son and State PWD Minister Vikramaditya Singh is the nominee in this election.

In Kangra, the Congress has fielded former Rajya Sabha MP Anand Sharma. Sitting MLA Vinod Sultanpuri is contesting in Shimla and former MLA Satpal Raizada in Hamirpur. The hill State seems evenly poised at this point.

Sign in to Unlock member-only benefits!
  • Bookmark stories to read later.
  • Comment on stories to start conversations.
  • Subscribe to our newsletters.
  • Get notified about discounts and offers to our products.
Sign in


Comments have to be in English, and in full sentences. They cannot be abusive or personal. Please abide to our community guidelines for posting your comment