What Makes Himachal Pradesh Polls Different?
Polling is scheduled for November 12, and the voters are keeping real issues centrestage
The distinct thing about the forthcoming polls in Himachal Pradesh is that the real issues are at the centre of the poll narrative. Unlike the elections in the recent past in different states where it was communal and other regressive narratives like 'the bulldozer' politics, the people in Himachal are sticking to political debates and discussions on issues that impact them in day to day lives. Polling is scheduled for November 12 and candidates are making all out efforts to woo the voters.
If one wants to understand what a common Himachali wants from his or her representatives, the Theog constituency is a case study. Theog is witnessing a multi cornered contest. The lone Communist Party of India (Marxist) (CPM) MLA Rakesh Singha is pitted against a strong independent Indu Verma, along with senior Congress leader Kuldeep Rathore, Ajay Shyam of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), Congress rebel Vijay Pal Khachi and Atar Singh Chandel of Aam Aadmi Party (AAP).
In the last five years Singha has stood out as a people's leader who fought for them on every front. Whether it was agitation for appointment of doctors in his constituency or it was the agitation of the fruit growers that shook the incumbent government, he was leading from the forefront. He set an example by fighting for safe transportation of Kashmiri labourers back to their homes during the lockdown, even though they were not even his voters.
While the Left strives for offering an alternative to the two political power houses of the BJP and the Congress, Singha's tenure is something to be showcased before the people not only in Himachal but other states as well.
When this reporter visited Theog on Monday, the town had been painted red by the CPM supporters. Singha addressed a rally of supporters who had convened from the remote villages of the constituency. "Whether I win or lose, I will always stand by you. We will not allow the corporates to loot and plunder our resources. We have limited resources but are fully committed to our people. They are all out conniving to somehow defeat me," he said.
"I come from a family of staunch Congress supporters but I have never seen a leader who comes at one call if someone ill needs help or if there is a death in any house. You do not need any appointment to meet him but can walk up to him anytime of the day," said Rattan Ram Kashyap, an elderly man who had come from Kharaish village. It was a sight to behold, as rural women wearing traditional Dhatus (head gear) walked about the town telling everyone that Singha stood for the poor and hence should be voted back from the constituency.
Contesting as an Independent, Indu Verma too rides high on the goodwill that her family enjoys in the area. The family is known for contributions to social causes in different forms. Her late husband Rakesh Verma had represented the BJP in the past. She had recently quit the BJP to join the Congress where she was denied a ticket. She has gone on to file her nomination as an Independent candidate.
Incidentally, a large number of her supporters are traditional BJP loyalists who are peeved at the saffron party's attitude towards her after the demise of her husband and also the Congress for not fielding her.
"She never went to the Congress but was invited by the top leadership of the party. The BJP has made a blunder by fielding someone who is no match to the reputation of the Verma family. We are staunch BJP supporters who will vote for the party in the 2024 Parliamentary elections, but have decided to go with Indu Verma this time because she has been wronged by the party," said an agitated Mohan Singh as he sat outside his candidate's office.
In her appeal to the voters, Indu has clearly stated that she is fighting to realise the dreams of her late husband and because "the national political parties have hurt the self esteem of your sister and daughter". She too has promised the old pension scheme (OPS) to her voters, something which has come to be the main poll plank of the Congress in these elections. Another important promise made by her is about assistance to the single women including the widows and separated ones.
This constituency has traditionally been a Congress bastion with veteran leaders like Vidya Stokes representing it in the past. She had vacated the seat for the former chief minister Virbhadra Singh who had instead chosen to contest from Arki at the last moment.
The Congress candidate this time Kuldeep Rathore is a former state unit chief known for his organisational skills. He is often referred to as the Congress' backroom hero who has eventually thrown his hat in the electoral ring for the first time. He had been active in student politics in the late 70s and early 80s.Congress rebel Khachi is the son of another Congress heavyweight from the yesteryear JBL Khachi.
The BJP has fielded a first timer in Ajay Shyam who has risen through student politics and organisational structure. He had reportedly hit the headlines for getting a First Information Report (FIR) lodged against senior journalist Vinod Dua in Kumarsain on charges of sedition and other violations for criticising Prime Minister Narendra Modi and the central government.
The case was quashed by the Supreme Court that had reportedly quoted the Kedar Nath Singh case of 1962 where it had been reportedly stated by five judges that "'allegedly seditious speech and expression may be punished only if the speech is an 'incitement' to 'violence', or 'public disorder'."
Shyam is batting for small controlled atmosphere stores in the villages so that apple growers get proper returns for their produce and a good road network in his constituency so that agricultural produce reaches the markets in time. He is also promising proper infrastructure at various religious shrines in the constituency.
The area around Theog has emerged as a major vegetable producing belt while the higher reaches of the constituency are known for their apple produce. The issues of farmers and horticulturists are at the top of the agenda being promised by all the candidates.
The recent agitation by fruit growers against the procurement by the corporates who own controlled atmosphere stores at low rates and the failure of the government to properly implement the Agricultural Produce Market Committee (APMC) Act had participation across the political spectrum. These are issues that no politician can afford to skirt.
The people in the area continue to air concerns that are common across the state. Among them OPS and employment are at the top. "What can a person do in the prevailing circumstances? You spend lakhs on your child's education and there is no guarantee of a well paying job. The recent scams like the paper leak of the police recruitment examination have shaken our belief in the system. Whom do you believe when even the government system is not foolproof?" said a fellow traveller on a bus to Shimla from Fagu as a political discussion got triggered off.
"One can understand that the government is in no position to give employment to everyone and neither can it curtail inflation but it needs to set its priorities right. Imposing goods and services tax (GST) on food items is no way to treat the poor," added the conductor of the bus.
It is not only unemployment but underemployment that is ranking high amongst the youth of the state. "So much is promised but very little is delivered. The recruitment should not be on contractual basis and the wages paid should be the ones paid to regular employees. You can't hire people for just a few thousand rupees and claim that you have employed people. It is an insult to the labour that people put in," is a common refrain coming from youngsters who are either studying or are already working on contracts with various outlets.
This Himachal election is also witnessing an urban narrative that is all set to be echoed in many cities across the country in the days to come. A case in point is the issues that are getting highlighted in the state's capital of Shimla. Even as one gets to read about perils of over and unplanned urbanisation in cities like Bangalore, these are being felt, discussed and debated in Shimla.
The Shimla (Urban) seat is witnessing a three cornered contest between Sanjay Sood of the BJP, Harish Janartha of the Congress and Tikender Panwar of the CPM. Sood is popular as a local tea and newspaper seller who has earlier been a municipal councillor. Janartha is a former deputy mayor who had contested the last elections unsuccessfully as a Congress rebel.
Panwar has also been a former deputy mayor. Interestingly all the three parties have seen representation from the seat in the past.
Coming back to the issues, one gets the feeling of things collapsing. The town has been grappling with problems like water supply off and on, waste management and traffic snarls that have become a routine whether it is a tourist season or on. In fact the traffic scenario is so frightening that one can take an hour or more to cover a stretch of a mere four kilometres during the tourist rush.
The town has started witnessing an increase in the number of two wheelers which was never the case before because commuting by private cars has become very difficult and the buses are not enough to carry the human load to the different corners.
Add to this the continuing menace of monkeys. The monkeys continue to create havoc in the town even after being declared vermin sometime back.
"Mobility of the locals is a major issue. The whole Smart City plan for the city has in fact worsened the things as the resources are not being properly utilised. The place needs out of the box thinking. There is at least the need for two escalators that can make things convenient for the elderly," pointed out an observer Adhir Rohal.
In fact Panwar is an expert on urban issues and has made it a part of his 'green campaign' where he is talking about facilitating walkers and cyclists. He has been talking about the need for constructing more tunnels that will shorten distance on foot between various locations.
He has also been talking about the installation of escalators besides ways and means to reduce the vehicular load on the city roads. He has been talking about improving public transport and particularly ensuring that school children commute safely in electronic buses. Another interesting thing that he has been talking about is efficient running of labour hostels for people who come to the town for employment from far off villages.
The other two candidates too have been promising a solution to these issues through different approaches. Shimla has in place a system of local taxis that actually operate as buses from different places in the city. It also has introduced electric buses on local routes.
Just as it has been happening in the other states for a long, the political parties have promised the moon to the voters in their vision document or the manifestoes. The voter is aware that most of the promises are made to be broken.
"It's the who's who of Indian pol
itics that can be seen in small towns and cities across the state begging for votes. Everybody knows that the majority of them will not be visible over the next five years," was an observation from a local in Solan as he complained about the hassles caused to the common man on account of the almost daily rallies by the top state and central leadership of both the main contesting parties.
The BJP's vision document is talking about a uniform civil code and a survey of Wakf Board properties. This is something that has not gone down with the people that are interpreting it as yet another move to divert the public attention from the real issues.
Majority of the voters fail to comprehend the importance of these issues in the context of the state's politics since the number of minorities in this hill state is negligible.
The other promises made by the saffron party include an annual dole of Rs 3000 to the farmers, opening of five new medical colleges, creating eight lakh new job opportunities for the youth, limiting GST on apple packaging material t0 12%, resolving discrepancies in remuneration of government employees, three free gas cylinders for women under new Devi Annapoorna Yojana and 33% reservation for women in government jobs and educational institutions.
The Congress on the other side has restoration of the OPS as its top priority. Besides, it is promising creation of five lakh jobs, a financial assistance of Rs 1500 to women between 18 to 60 years of age, and 300 units of free power. It also promises fixing a minimum support price for fruit produce, interest free loans worth Rs 680 crores for start-ups, good quality education with four English medium schools in every constituency, mobile health facility vans, a commitment to purchase 10 litres of milk from those rearing cows and purchasing cow dung at Rs 2 per kg to promote organic farming.
An interesting promise made by the party includes creation of anti drug abuse enforcement authority under a sitting judge of the state High Court. Every party has been promising to take the battle against the menace of drugs to its logical conclusion.
Union Home Minister Amit Shah while addressing a rally in Chamba reportedly promised to make Himachal drug free if the BJP is voted back to power. Even Congress leader Priyanka Gandhi has promised the same. It needs to be pointed out that the menace has assumed an alarming proportion in the state with a large number of youngsters falling prey to the chemical drugs.
The CPM that is contesting on 11 seats has laid emphasis on addressing the concerns of the farmers and horticulturists besides restoration of OPS in its manifesto. It has promised to restore the special category status of the state besides promising a minimum support price for agricultural and horticultural produce.
It has promised regularisation of outsourced, part time and contractual employees besides minimum wages of Rs 26000 for labour. The party has called for a minimum 200 day employment under Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (MNREGA) with a daily payment of Rs 350.
An interesting promise revolves around land reform that aims at providing 5 bighas of land to every landless and poor farmer. It has also promised residential plots of land to the homeless both in the urban and rural areas.
Meanwhile, the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) that is vying to get a foothold in Himachal politics continues its campaign on issues of governance. With its leadership engaged largely in Gujarat, the party seems to have left the battle in Himachal for another day. It remains to be seen what impact its entry has on various seats in the state where victory margins are known to be narrow.
All Photographs RAJEEV KHANNA