Alarm Bells 2022: Real Issues Dominate Bypolls Despite Best Efforts
Uncharacteristic opposition sweep in Himachal Pradesh
The bye-poll results to a Lok Sabha and three Assembly constituencies in Himachal Pradesh declared Tuesday carry strong signs of the direction of Indian politics. All four seats were won by the opposition Congress party, a significant victory in a state that goes to polls in a year.
The most significant result in the national context came from the Mandi Lok Sabha seat, where the Congress candidate Pratibha Singh, widow of former chief minister Virbhadra Singh who passed away some months ago, defeated former brigadier Khushal Thakur of the Bharatiya Janata Party by a margin of 7,490 votes. Thakur is a Kargil war hero.
The result is being seen as real issues taking precedence in the minds of voters, something that has been excised from the country’s electoral politics for the last few years. Several people in Mandi observed to this reporter that rising prices, disemployment, and the economic fallout of lockdowns as the pandemic ran rampage played heavy on people’s minds.
“The voter expressed their anger against inflation in particular through their vote. The common people are gradually losing their patience over the ever increasing costs of essentials. People are particularly peeved over the prices of edible mustard oil going through the roof along with petrol and diesel,” a political observer told The Citizen.
The BJP, trying its best to wean the attention of the voters away from these issues, had resorted to its tried and tested formula of whipping up passion in the name of the nation by building a controversy over remarks made by Pratibha Singh on the Kargil skirmish.
The party tried to convey that the remarks were an insult to military personnel who had made sacrifices during the 1999 conflict. But the people did not buy this narrative, and Congress workers too handled the matter deftly by conveying that the party has utmost regard for the Indian military and that the BJP was trying to use soldiers’ contribution to achieve political goals.
Then of course were other local issues that worked in the favour of the main opposition party, like people’s opposition to a proposed international airport in the Balh valley that many feel will spell nothing but disaster for the people of this area. There are also complaints about government compensation for land acquired to broaden highways to four lanes.
Mandi is among the largest parliamentary constituencies in the country covering a very tough terrain. It is spread over the districts of Mandi, Kullu, Kinnaur, Lahaul and Spiti along with parts of Shimla and Chamba. All these areas are presently experiencing turmoil among people on issues of ecology, environment and livelihoods.
Coming to the importance of these results for state politics, it needs emphasising that the polity is in for a dimensional change.
It was Mandi that emerged as the new political nerve centre in 2017 when the BJP won all nine assembly constituencies falling in this district. It might lose this status in the forthcoming assembly polls if the present trend continues.
The BJP had decided to make Jai Ram Thakur who represented Seraj the new chief minister, but doubts are being raised now whether the party would like to enter the next poll battle under Thakur or repeat its recent moves in Uttarakhand, Karnataka and Gujarat, where it changed its chief ministers and cabinets to overcome anti-government feeling.
The Congress also retained the Fatehpur constituency in Kangra district, with Bhawani Pathania defeating the BJP’s Baldev Thakur, and Arki in Solan district where the youthful and dynamic Sanjay Awasthi defeated the BJP’s Rattan Pal. Arki was represented by Virbhadra Singh in the last polls in 2017.
But the biggest embarrassment for the BJP came in the Jubbal-Kotkhai seat, where its candidate Neelam Seraik forfeited her deposit while rebel candidate Chetan Bragta came second to Rohit Thakur of the Congress. Bragta had been given the impression that he would be the BJP’s official nominee and had gone on an intensive campaign after the seat fell vacant following his father Narinder Bragta’s demise. He contested the polls as an independent when the party decided to field Seraik.
Observers point out that the top BJP leadership was aware of what was coming, which is why there was hardly any national level leader who campaigned in Himachal Pradesh. Party national president Jagat Prakash Nadda who hails from Bilaspur district in the state too kept away from the campaign. Union minister Anurag Thakur was the only prominent face to hit the campaign trail for his party.
Accepting the defeat, CM Thakur said in a tweet that the party leaders and workers should get to work for the assembly polls in 2022 and try to address shortcomings.
Inflation and unemployment overrode all other issues in the assembly bypolls as well. The ongoing farmers’ agitation against the BJP government at the Centre too had an impact in apple producing areas, where there has been opposition to the “failing corporate model” of horticulture in the state.
Vijay Pal Singh Chauhan, a young Congress leader from the Seraj constituency said, “The main thing that worked for the Congress was early announcement of tickets. The tickets were given on merit. These two things gave a psychological edge to the party and confidence to its workers that victory can be achieved with meticulous planning and execution.”
Adding that “The party cannot afford to be complacent for 2022. The party restructuring has to be done at the earliest in the state so that the mistakes made this time are not repeated.”
This time the Congress had landed in an awkward condition when Arki’s block unit had opposed the official candidate. Yet party insiders say that these bye-polls saw senior leaders putting aside their individual aspirations in the understanding that this was a fight for survival. Various factions too desisted from doing each other harm.
The results have also boosted the morale of the Virbhadra faction in the Congress. With his son Vikramaditya Singh already a sitting MLA and now Pratibha Singh winning election to the Lok Sabha, the family has definitely emerged more powerful in the state Congress.
Himachal having a history of voting in the Congress and BJP alternately too will add to the BJP’s worries for the coming assembly polls.