Although it is the freezing season in the hill state of Himachal Pradesh, political temperatures continue to run high. With a new Congress government in the saddle after high stake Assembly polls, the results to which were declared on December 8, a die is already being cast for the times to come in the near future.

Himachal Pradesh poll results assume special significance in the national context despite the fact that they have been underplayed by the mainstream media. The win in Himachal has given a breathing space to the Congress party that was fighting for both revival and survival.

Observers feel that the positive results from this state coupled with the response senior party leader Rahul Gandhi is getting from his Bharat Jodo Yatra will provide fresh avenues for re-strategising its future course for the nine crucial Assembly polls that are to be held this year, before the showdown for the Parliamentary polls in 2024.

Already there are bits and pieces of information coming about the Congress repeating the strategy of fighting the forthcoming Assembly polls under a collective leadership, something that was successful in Himachal Pradesh.

Coming back to the developments in this state after the declaration of results and there being a tectonic shift marked by anointment of Sukhvinder Singh Sukhu to the top post, it needs to be underlined that the start of the tenure has been loud and vociferous. This is despite the fact that there has been a long delay in announcing the council of ministers.

As of now, it is Sukhu as the chief minister and Mukesh Agnigotri as his deputy that are holding the reins.

The reasons being given for the delay to the man on the ground are Sukhu being diagnosed with Covid 19 and then the non availability of the Governor RV Arlekar.

However, there is rampant factionalism within the grand old party with rivals eyeing key portfolios and that also has a role to play here. Observers say that Sukhu will have to do a tightrope walk throughout his tenure in an attempt to strike a balance with various factions.

Yet there have been decisions coming, even though no Cabinet meetings have been held. These decisions are all set to be the political fault lines for the days to come.

The most important has been the de-notification of hundreds of institutions that had been announced by the outgoing Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) government under Jai Ram Thakur. These include health, education, police and revenue institutions besides others. The reason being given for this decision is that there were no budgetary provisions for the same.

Observers say that the poor fiscal health of the state also puts a big question mark on running non-viable institutions. Sources say that even the bureaucracy had flagged the announcement of these institutions over the last few months citing financial crunch for the same.

The decision has however drawn varied reactions both on the political as well as the social turf.

Sukhu has chosen to go on an all out offensive on this issue. During the ‘Jan Aabhar’ rally organised by the Congress at Dharamshala on January 3 to thank the people of Kangra for a massive mandate to the party. He launched a scathing attack on the previous BJP Government for opening over 900 institutions in different parts of the state without any budgetary provisions.

He said that this was simply done to lure the people. It was with an eye on the Assembly elections that haphazard announcements were made by the previous government. He claimed that the state government was committed towards providing a transparent, responsive and accountable administration to the people.

The BJP has not taken this decision lying down and has launched a counter offensive with the former chief minister and current leader of opposition Jai Ram Thakur leading the assault. With the government not having completed even a fortnight in power, the BJP launched protests across the state that were effectively propagated by the party among the people.

Thakur said that if need be the party will not refrain from knocking the doors of the courts on this issue. “Keeping up with the ‘rivaaz’ (tradition), the Congress has started stalling and reversing the decisions of the government.

This is when even the council of ministers is not in place and a start has been made to function with a revengeful attitude,” Thakur tweeted.

The BJP has been stating that it is within a few days that the opposition has been compelled by the Congress to take to the streets, which is a sad development. Party leaders said that the petty politics and anti people stance of the Congress is evident from the decisions to close institutions meant to serve the people.

They said that it is for the first time in the history of the state that there have been protests against a government decision even before the constitution of a council of ministers. The government is being referred to as ‘de-notify sarkar’ by its detractors.

Even the Left has opposed the move by the Sukhu government. In a statement, the general secretary of the state unit of the Communist Party of India (Marxist) Dr Onkar Shad said, “Under the neo-liberal path of development accompanied with a weak revenue base successive governments in Himachal Pradesh are failing to provide the basic services of education, health, drinking water, electricity, bus services, Veterinary services etc. as the Himachal Pradesh Fiscal Responsibility Budget Management Act 2005, does not permit the government to have a fiscal deficit of more than 2.5 percent of the State Gross Domestic Product.

“However, each party in power whether congress or the BJP make announcements in the election year to appease the voters knowing very well that the finance department does not permit it to make such announcements without having financial provisions for the same. The approvals are only sought by providing token budgets.

“The people are not educated on these issues and the governments in power only hoodwink them. This is being done both by the Congress and the BJP alternatively. An end must be brought to this kind of politics of deceit.

“Open debate and transparency must be adopted on this issue and the government must review the issue of closure of offices, health and educational institutions etc. and until this is undertaken the decision to close all such institutions should be put in abeyance. Pitching one section of the people against the other is not healthy for democratic values and democracy.”

The CPM has appealed to the government to review this decision within a period of 15 days asking for a status quo on this sensitive issue till then. Observers say that such decisions have a different kind of impact in public perception as a common man feels that facilities extended to him are being snatched.

However, there is an educated segment that feels that the decision is justified as there is no point opening new institutions when even running the old ones efficiently is a big challenge.

An interesting comment came from a political observer in Solan who pointed, “The BJP that used to smirk at the farmers and other segments demonstrating for their rights calling them ‘Andolan jeevis’ is now on the streets itself. This is the power of a common man that can get anyone to hit the streets for political mileage.”

Many on the other hand believe that instead of de-notifying institutions in such a brazen manner, Sukhu could have constituted a committee to look into the viability of such institutions and then de-notified them step by step.

Another important decision taken by his government was the suspension of the functioning of Himachal Pradesh Staff Selection Commission (HPSSC) at Hamirpur on December 26 with immediate effect keeping in view the instance of leakage of question paper for the post of Junior Office Assistant (IT). This is being conveyed as the commitment of Sukhu to provide ‘corruption free and responsive administration’ to the people of the state.

Naresh Chauhan who is the Principal Advisor (Media) to the Chief Minister said it was also apprehended that this malpractice was going on for quite some time and prima facie, it appeared that the Commission had not discharged its duties and responsibilities in a transparent manner. He said the decision would also help in instilling faith in the job seeking youth in recruitment agencies.

A special investigation team (SIT) has been constituted to look into more revelations regarding alleged malpractices in past exams conducted by HPSSC. Besides, a separate technical team has also been constituted to assist on-going investigation in Hamirpur.

It needs to be remembered that the previous government had to face a lot of public anger over the police recruitment scam that had hit the roof a few months ahead of the polls.

There is a lot of public anger against the recruitments made during the previous regime particularly to the government educational institutions. The government is under public pressure to probe recruitments to the colleges and government universities with allegations of the norms having been thrown to the winds by the previous regime.

Even the setting up of a new Sardar Patel University with its headquarters in Mandi is being questioned and it is being pointed out that instead of setting up a new University to accommodate people having a particular ideology, it would have been wiser to set up a regional centre of the Himachal Pradesh University over there.

A delegation of the Students Federation of India (SFI) that is spearheading the agitation on the issue met Sukhu on Monday and handed over a memorandum to him on the issues.

“More than 270 have been recruited in the last three years (even during the Covid period) contrary to the provisions of the University Grants Commission (UGC) and rule and regulations of the university and state government,” the memorandum underlined.

It was further stated that fraud experiences, publications and PhDs (awarded against UGC rules) have been considered for the selection of people from right wing organisations and this is set to ruin the careers of the coming generation.

“Therefore it is very urgent to constitute a high power committee under a sitting or former judge of the High Court. This will be justice to the genuine and talented candidates who have been ousted at the cost of the fraudulent ones,” the memorandum stated.

The state secretary of the SFI Amit Thakur said, “The chief minister has agreed to constitution of a probe panel on this issue.”

Another pertinent demand put forward in the memorandum was restoration of the old criteria of recruitment of assistant professors for college cadre. It was alleged that the recent recruitments have been solely on the basis of interviews while ignoring the marks obtained in written and screen tests.

Student organisations have also been demanding the restoration of their democratic rights by elections to students’ unions in the colleges and universities.

Himachal Pradesh was the hub of a vibrant student political milieu till a few years ago when the authorities put an end to the elections. The student organisations are now underlining that Sukhu himself is a product of vibrant student politics as he grew from a leader of National Students Union of India (NSUI) to his current position of the chief minister.

The students say that these elections are important to strengthen the political and overall consciousness of the community.

A decision of the CM that has drawn widespread appreciation is the announcement pertaining to the setting up of the Chief Minister's Sukhashray Sahayata Kosh with an outlay of Rs 101 crore to provide the facility of higher education to the needy children and destitute women.

The state government will bear the expenditure on skill development education, higher education and vocational training of such children in engineering colleges, IIT, NIT, IIM, IT, polytechnic institutes, nursing and degree colleges etc.

They will also be given financial assistance as per their requirement so that they can lead a respectable life. Besides, financial assistance would also be taken from the MLAs.

Sukhu said that receiving assistance from this fund would be free from government restrictions and no income certificate would be taken from them. The assistance will be given directly to the beneficiary's account immediately by the Department of Social Justice and Empowerment following a simple application.

He added that efforts will also be made to seek financial assistance under corporate social responsibility (CSR) from philanthropists and companies etc. so that all the vulnerable sections could be provided with good and high quality facilities.

Meanwhile, all eyes are now set on when and how the government starts implementing its prime promise of extending the old pension scheme (OPS) to the government employees. This issue was one of the key factors that brought the Congress back to power. Senior party leader Priyanka Gandhi had stated in her rallies that the decision to implement the OPS would be taken in the first Cabinet meeting.

During the Dharamshala rally Sukhu reiterated that the state government would implement all the ten guarantees as promised in the Congress manifesto during assembly elections in a phased manner. He added that the government will implement OPS in its first cabinet meeting. Besides, a decision to provide Rs. 1500 to the women in the age group of 18 to 60 years would also be taken soon.

The first challenge that has emerged for the government is the closure of two cement plants at Darlaghat and Barmana that were acquired by a corporate entity allegedly close to the central establishment following an impasse over freight rate with the transporters. The impasse has been continuing for the last almost three weeks with demonstrations and protests at both these places.

The buildup continues with transporters from other parts of the state throwing their weight behind those contesting the low rates being offered by the corporate entity.

The government has been trying to settle this dispute recognising the fact that thousands of people are getting direct and indirect employment at both these cement factories while their families are earning their livelihood from here.

The winter session of the Assembly that starts from January 4 is expected to be a stormy affair. Observers say that the manner in which the new government functions in Himachal will have a bearing on other states as well and that is why the Congress will have to come up with an imaginative model of governance.

It is being pointed out that the party in Himachal has managed to demolish the narrative being promoted by the BJP across the country that the saffron party under the leadership of Prime Minister Narendra Modi and union home minister Amit Shah was invincible. It has to move on from here.

The Member of Parliament and state Congress president Pratibha Singh said at Dharamshala that the party organisation and the state government would work with complete unison to ensure that the pace of development gets added vigour so that Himachal Pradesh can emerge as a “model state in matter of development”.