Uncertainty marks the political mood in the hill state of Himachal Pradesh as the two main contending parties, Congress and Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) take their stance at the starting block for the electoral race to the Lok Sabha. Both have a lot to answer to the people as they go seeking votes. Names of the candidates to be fielded for the parliamentary poll are yet to be finalised and, factionalism is a common factor in both these traditional parties.

Meanwhile, the Congress is on the back foot ahead of the Lok Sabha polls following recent developments. One has to look at their prospects amid the scenario that has emerged after the recent drama witnessed for the lone Rajya Sabha. The RS seat went to the BJP’s kitty through a draw of lots as a tiebreaker.

The tie had resulted after Congress legislators resorted to cross voting. They along with three independents voted in favour of BJP’s Harsh Mahajan who was pitted against Congress candidate Abhishek Manu Singhvi.

The drama did not end there as the Speaker Kuldeep Singh Pathania went on to disqualify the six Congress MLAs for defying the party whip and abstaining during the passing of the state Budget. This helped the government pass the Budget without any difficulty. This is perhaps the first case of MLAs being disqualified under the Anti-defection Law, about which one hardly gets to read or hear even as politicians continue to jump the fence regularly.

The six MLAs Rajinder Rana, Sudhir Sharma, Inder Dutt Lakhanpal, Devinder Kumar Bhutoo, Ravi Thakur and Chetanya Sharma have approached the Supreme Court reportedly saying that they were not time adequate time to respond to the disqualification petition and hence the principle of natural justice stands violated.

Their disqualification has reduced the strength of the house from 68 members to 62. The strength of the ruling Congress has come down from 40 to 34 members. Rumours, around more Congress MLAs being unhappy with the state of affairs, and subsequently planning to jump ship, have added to the uncertainty.

Meanwhile, in a move aimed at sending across a stern message, Congress president Mallikarjun Kharge removed Sudhir Sharma as All India Congress Committee (AICC) secretary, while Rana put in his papers as one of the working presidents of the party in the state on Wednesday.

There are multiple questions for which the citizens of the state seek answers. The first is about the future of these six rebel MLAs who stand disqualified at present. Will they be contesting the repoll soon, unless they get a reprieve of some sort from the Court? Will they now be contesting on a BJP ticket if the saffron party decides to field them? If not, where will they be heading?

Amid this scenario it is the role of former Chief Minister Vir Bhadra Singh’s wife Pratibha Singh and her legislator son Vikramaditya Singh, that is in the spotlight. Pratibha is a sitting Lok Sabha member from Mandi seat that is the home turf of former BJP chief minister Jairam Thakur.

While both Pratibha, and Vikramaditya who is a minister, had been giving statements that were aimed at embarrassing Chief Minister Thakur Sukhvinder Singh Sukhu from the day he was sworn in, their recent stand calls for an explanation by the public at least if not by the Congress party. Vikramaditya’s two reported meetings with rebel MLAs continues to spark unease in the party, even as Sukhu claimed that his government would complete its full five year term in office.

Vikramaditya had recently aired anguish over the failure of the Sukhu government to install his father Virbhadra Singh’s statue on the Ridge in Shimla. This had been followed by state education minister Rohit Thakur also seeking the installation of a statue of his grandfather and former chief minister Thakur Ram Lal.

Raising such issues at a time when the party leadership is hard pressed over seat sharing arrangements at national level for the parliamentary polls, and that the state government needs an image makeover after the Rajya Sabha poll debacle, says a lot about the state of affairs in the Congress that is pitted against a formidable BJP that remains in election mode 365 days a year.

“Pratibha and her son have always tried to make Sukhu unsettled. But perhaps they too had not expected the disqualification of the six rebels. The rebels in turn have not yet got the much sought after stay from the Court as yet making things all the more complicated. But the message that has gone out is that Pratibha and Vikramaditya themselves stand confused as to what they actually want at this point of time,” a senior political observer said.

The observer added, “The Congress had a very good chance to send across a national message from Himachal after winning the last assembly polls here in 2022. It had chosen Sukhu, a man coming from a humble background as the chief minister thereby puncturing the BJP’s accusations on dynasty politics. But the Sukhu government itself faces a trust deficit when it comes to not taking everyone along.”

The locals are pointing out that, “Even in the Rajya Sabha polls when the BJP was accusing the Congress of having fielded an outsider in Singhvi, the Congress could have made out an issue by countering that even BJP president Jagat Prakash Nadda who has been elected to Rajya Sabha from Gujarat was an outsider there since he belongs to Bilaspur in Himachal Pradesh.”

The observers added that neither the Congress nor the BJP were confident of the Rajya Sabha poll outcome in Himachal Pradesh, and this explains why the grapevine around the Congress fielding a candidate from the Gandhi family and the BJP fielding Nadda once again from this hill state fell flat.

Sukhu is racing against time to announce sops for the people of the state before the model code of conduct comes into effect for the Lok Sabha polls. On Wednesday he said, “We have come to serve the people dedicatedly and not for enjoying the power. After coming to power we have adopted zero tolerance towards corruption and also revealed the corrupt practices of the BJP Government wherein the jobs were sold out to the few.”

In the Cabinet meeting held on Thursday, Sukhu’s government accorded approval to provide Rs. 1500 per month as Indira Gandhi Pyari Behna Sukh Samman Nidhi to all eligible women of the state in the age group of 18-59 years ‘thereby fulfilling the guarantee given by the Congress Party to the womenfolk during Assembly elections in 2022’.

“Henceforth, all the women above 18 years are covered with a pension of Rs. 1500 per month till life,” said a government spokesperson.

The spokesperson further added that the cabinet expressed its full faith in the leadership of Sukhu and reaffirmed unity under his leadership. “It condemned the use of official machinery by the Government of India to destabilise a democratically elected government. The Cabinet condemned the nefarious designs used by the BJP to subvert the democratic process. The Cabinet resolved to inform the public of Himachal Pradesh about the propaganda of BJP and said in one voice that the State Government will complete a full term of five years,” he added.

Sukhu headed to the national capital on Thursday afternoon where he is expected to meet the senior party leadership on the issues concerning his government in the state.

The BJP has managed to keep the Sukhu government on tenterhooks by ‘managing’ a Rajya Sabha victory, and persistently attacking the Sukhu government, but it is still wary of the message this has sent to the people of the state. There is a general perception among the aware citizens that the Congress MLAs who cross voted cheated their voters who had elected them on a clear anti BJP mandate.

The question that the BJP workers are finding difficult to answer is whether the party has gone a step too far just before the Lok Sabha polls. Factionalism in the BJP is not something new in Himachal Pradesh but at present a strong leadership at the centre ensures that factionalism does work to the disadvantage of the party prospects. The party will once again be entering the poll arena in the name of Prime Minister Narendra Modi.

The people still have time to make up their mind for the Lok Sabha polls. A question being asked is whether Congress will once again field Pratibha from the Mandi seat. If yes then who would her opponent be, since there are chances of the BJP either fielding Jairam Thakur or actress Kangana Ranaut who has been courting controversy over her statements from this seat. In Himachal Pradesh, the political waters are not stagnant, but murky at present.