Assembly elections: Himachal Pradesh

Close contest

Print edition : November 24, 2017

Chief Minister Virbhadra Singh at an election rally in Palampur in Kangra district on November 1. Photo: AKHILESH KUMAR

Prem Kumar Dhumal (right), the BJP's chief ministerial candidate, releasing the manifesto for the elections along with Union Ministers Arun Jaitley and J.P. Nadda, in Shimla on October 29. Photo: AKHILESH KUMAR

The ruling Congress in Himachal Pradesh faces a formidable challenge from the BJP.

OF the two States that are going to the polls this year, Gujarat and Himachal Pradesh, much attention, for obvious reasons, has been centred on the campaign and outcome in Gujarat. Yet, what is significant is that both the States will vote a year after demonetisation and a few months into the introduction of Goods and Services Tax (GST). Neither the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) nor the Congress is leaving anything to chance. Elections to the 68 seats in the Himachal Pradesh Assembly will be held on November 9 in a single-phase polling involving nearly 50 lakh voters. The results will be declared on December 18 along with that of Gujarat.

Except in some 20 seats where there are triangular contests as the Left parties and some powerful independents are in the fray, it is a direct contest between the incumbent Congress and the BJP. The contest in the 2012 Assembly elections too was very much between the Congress and the BJP; the Bahujan Samaj Party and some other national parties and regional outfits such as the Himachal Loktantrik Party all drew a blank then.

Of the 105 independents in the fray, only five won in the 2012 elections. In the outgoing Assembly, the Congress has 37 members and the BJP 26.

The Congress secured 42.8 per cent of the votes in 2012, the BJP 38.47 per cent, and independents 12.4 per cent. In the Lok Sabha elections, two years later, the BJP’s vote share leapt to 54.3 per cent vis-a-vis the Congress’ 40.7 per cent. Other contestants, such as the Aam Aadmi Party, which put up candidates for the first time, garnered 2.1 per cent of the vote. The “Modi” wave was so powerful that even Pratibha Singh, wife of Chief Minister Virbhadra Singh, could not win the Mandi Lok Sabha seat.

Interestingly, this time there is no regional party in the State or any non-Congress, non-BJP front. Among the Left parties, the Communist Party of India (Marxist) is contesting 14 seats; the Communist Party of India is contesting three and has extended support to independents in three other seats.

The voter turnout, going by past elections, is expected to cross 70 per cent, with some constituencies even touching the 85 per cent mark as was witnessed in the 2012 elections. The polling percentage in 2012 was 73.5. A State with a very high literacy rate, elections are keenly contested here and since 1985, no party has been elected consecutively.

The incumbent government, led by six-time Chief Minister Virbhadra Singh, has an uphill task. The BJP is led by former Chief Minister Prem Kumar Dhumal; he was declared the party’s Chief Minister candidate by party president Amit Shah on October 31 at a rally in the Pacchad Assembly constituency. It was curious that the BJP declared Dhumal as its chief ministerial nominee nine days before the voting day as it had consciously refrained from doing so in States that went to the polls earlier in the year.

It was no secret that Union Health Minister J.P. Nadda’s name was also doing the rounds for the Chief Minister’s post and there was speculation that an entirely new candidate would be named after the elections. Clearly, there appears to have been some rethinking on that front.

Perhaps convinced by the idea that declaring a name would place the party in a more advantageous position, more so to quell any potential rebellion within that would reduce the chances of a victory in a closely contested election, the BJP leadership took the plunge and declared the chief ministerial candidate. In fact, the Congress had made an issue of this after the election date was announced.

Campaign promises

The two main contesting parties drew up exhaustive lists of campaigners and unveiled their manifestos. The BJP released a detailed vision document on October 30 with an exhaustive list of election promises, which includes employment generation, harnessing the tourism potential, and doing away with interviews for Class-III and IV jobs. It also promises a Cow Welfare Commission, or Gau Sewa Aayog.

The Congress manifesto followed on November 1. Interestingly, while development is the overall theme of both manifestos, both make assurances of addressing unemployment and the crisis in agriculture. Prepared by Health Minister Kaul Singh Thakur and his team, the Congress manifesto promises free laptops, farm loans of up to Rs.1 lakh with zero interest, appointment of staff in newly opened schools and colleges, and 1.5 lakh jobs if voted back to power.

However, the Congress has had to deal with rebellion in its ranks. It expelled seven leaders, including two former Ministers, all of whom were threatening to contest as independents against the official nominees. It also revoked the suspension of two Congress leaders. In a major development, Anil Sharma, son of former Union Minister Sukh Ram, joined the BJP.

The implosion in the party has continued in various forms. Veteran Congress leader and eight-time legislator Vidya Stokes’ nomination papers were rejected as another Congress candidate had filed his nomination from the same seat ahead of her. She had apparently vacated the Theog seat for Virbhadra Singh, who opted for the Arki constituency. Vidya Stokes had wanted her own candidate in Theog, but the central leadership of the party had other ideas. Factionalism and rivalry between Congress leaders from the State and the Centre have been there for some time and they become acute during elections.

The CPI(M) is viewed as a potential third force in the State even though it lacks representation in the Assembly. It has made its presence felt by raising issues such as unemployment; the agrarian crisis, especially with regard to small farmers; restoration of special status to the State; and law and order. It had made inroads into the Shimla Municipal Corporation in the 2012 civic elections, wresting both the posts of the Mayor and the Deputy Mayor for the first time, trouncing the Congress and the BJP.

But in June this year, for the first time, the BJP secured a majority in the 34-member civic body after managing to get the support of independents who later joined that party. The Congress did not do badly, but it could not get the support of the independents and others to make a bid for the posts of Mayor and Deputy Mayor. Candidates backed by the BJP eventually won the mayoral and deputy mayoral elections. The tightly contested corporation elections were seen as a precursor to the Assembly elections this year.

The issues

“There is actually no difference between the BJP and the Congress. Our manifesto says that a political alternative is the need of the hour,” Kuldeep Tanwar, CPI(M) candidate from Kasumpti, told Frontline. According to him, the contest is between the Congress and the CPI(M) and the BJP will be in the third position in Kasumpti. Neither of the two ruling parties, he said, had ever raised livelihood issues of the people in the State, 92 per cent of whom depended on agriculture.

The only issue that preoccupied the Assembly in the past, he said, was that of legislators’ emoluments and pensions. Both parties have been regularly attacking each other on issues of corruption and the prevalence of a land and mining mafia in the State.

The declining size of landholdings is a major problem that neither the BJP nor the Congress recognises. Successive governments have ignored demands by small farmers as well as the landless to regularise land pattas and allot land. Landlessness has been a major concern among Dalits, who constitute 25 per cent of the population and the largest segment in the State. Himachal Pradesh comes second after Punjab among States with high Dalit populations. There have been Dalit areas in the State where drinking water is not available for months.

There were around 1.5 lakh requests by people for regularisation of land titles, more so after the enactment of the Forest Rights Act. Vegetable growers, especially of the “off-season” variety, faced problems of storage and pricing, but neither the Centre nor the State ever addressed this problem. The Central government had promised a minimum support price for vegetables, but that was not announced. The BJP manifesto is strangely silent on this.

Neither did the Congress government in the State take any step to arrange cold storage for “off-season” vegetables or processing units for perishables like tomatoes. Agriculturists have been plagued by the onslaughts of wild animals on their crop, a feature that all parties have included in their manifestos.

Tanwar said that the problem was prevalent in nearly 2,000 panchayats and in almost all the 12 districts in the State. In 2016, a Central government notification placed certain kinds of wild animals found in three States, including Himachal Pradesh, in the category of “vermin”, which meant that they could be culled by law. They were the nilgai, monkeys and wild boar. The State government did little to implement that.

The shocking rape and murder of a schoolgirl in the Theog-Jubbal Kotkhai constituency has compelled all parties to include in their manifestos special measures for the safety of women. It was another matter that following the heinous crime, an innocent labourer was picked up; he was later found dead in police custody. A “Gudiya Justice Forum”, formed for an impartial inquiry following the custodial death, put pressure on the government. The case was handed over to the Central Bureau of Investigation, which was itself pulled up by the Himachal High Court for tardy progress in the investigation.

Unemployment

Unemployment is a major issue in the State with a population of 6.8 million. There are an estimated 12 lakh “educated unemployed” who have fallen back on land resources. Outsourcing of jobs too is a major problem which, interestingly, finds mention in the BJP manifesto.

Both parties that have been in power in the State cannot rule out anti-incumbency against their sitting candidates. The BJP has renominated most of the legislators and a large number of those who contested elections in 2012. Twice elected from the BJP, Suresh Bharadwaj faces anti-incumbency from Shimla as do many others like him.

The BJP hopes to cross the 60-mark although observers say that there is no overwhelming wave in favour of the party. It won all four seats in the Lok Sabha elections of 2014 despite there being a Congress government in the State. In the 2009 Lok Sabha elections, the BJP won three and the Congress one. In 2004, the respective tally was one and three.

There is a palpable sense of anti-incumbency against the Congress government. However, if the BJP wins Himachal Pradesh by a simple majority, it will not be seen as a great victory or even a referendum on the performance of the Central government. In a closely contested situation, a three-fourths majority for the BJP might be interpreted differently.

Yet, as local issues tend to dominate Assembly elections, and with the waning of the “Modi magic” as compared to 2014, the results may throw up some surprises.

“This time, the people will not vote for the BJP; they will vote against the Congress,” said a political observer in the State, summing up the feeling among the hitherto unenthused electorate, implying that even if the BJP wins it would be the result of negative voting.

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