Contrasts Define Himachal Pradesh Poll Battle
The BJP is trying largely to play around national narratives, and Congress is keeping its campaign localised
Poll campaigns in the hill state of Himachal Pradesh that goes to polls on November 12 will shift into top gear after Diwali. This Assembly poll in Himachal Pradesh has assumed special significance as the outcome is set to have a bearing on the national politics as well.
This is because of several factors revolving around the campaigns and strategies, new experiments are being done in terms of choosing the candidates. While deviating from the routine claims made by political parties, there has been an entry of new players. The results will set the tone for the elections in other states, eventually culminating in the 2024 Parliamentary polls.
The broad scenario that has emerged till now is that the state is largely going to witness a battle between the traditional rivals – the Congress and the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) that is currently in power. The Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) too will be making efforts to get a foothold in the politics of the state but it is yet to get a response on the lines of what it has achieved in Gujarat. The Left with its strong presence in pockets has decided to contest 11 seats out of the total 68.
In terms of differences in the poll strategies of the two main contenders, the BJP is going into the battle with Jai Ram Thakur once again being its Chief Ministerial face. The Congress on the other hand has entered the ring under the collective leadership with leaders like Pratibha Singh, Sukhvinder Sukhu, Mukesh Agnihotri, Kaul Singh and Asha Kumari at the helm of affairs.
The BJP has been trying largely to play around national narratives that are being seconded by the local ones. Prime Minister Narendra Modi and home minister Amit Shah in their recent visits to the states have been playing up the 'double engine' narrative. They made claims about development in the hill state while also reportedly spicing up their speeches with Congress bashing, reference to abolition of Article 370 in Jammu and Kashmir, Ram temple, referring to the role of the hill state in 'Rashtra Raksha' (national security) given the large number of youth from the state joining the defence and paramilitary forces.
Modi in his last visit to Chamba, a day before the model code of conduct came into existence, said, "the working style of double-engine government is different from the rest. Our priority is how to make people's lives easier. That's why we are giving maximum emphasis on tribal areas, and hilly areas."
He listed measures like providing gas connections, piped water, health services, Ayushman Bharat, and road connectivity that are changing lives in remote and hilly areas. "If we are making wellness centres in the villages, at the same time, we are opening medical colleges too in the districts", he emphasised while mentioning how Himachal was prioritised in Covid vaccination in order to protect tourism.
In a stark contrast the Congress is keeping its campaign highly localised. Senior Congress leader Priyanka Gandhi while launching the party's campaign from Solan, an hour before the announcement of the poll schedule, tore into the BJP while not mentioning the name of Modi even once.
She reminded the people of the connection her grandmother and former Prime Minister Indira Gandhi had with Himachal. "She had the desire to build a house in Himachal where she would spend her retired life but unfortunately she was assassinated. She was here on January 25, 1970 (when Himachal became a full fledged state when it was snowing. She respected your talent, resolve and courage," she said.
Priyanka Gandhi said that this was not Congress' election but that of the people asking them to vote keeping in mind what kind of future and economic security they want.
The Congress is playing up its promise of implementing the old pension scheme for the employees, an issue that can be Achilles' heel for the BJP along with prevailing unemployment.
The party is also attacking the BJP on the Agnipath scheme introduced for recruitment in the defence forces along with the concerns of the fruit growers and spiralling inflation.
There is also a stark difference in the ticket distribution as well. The Congress has tried to play a balancing act in terms of caste and regional factors while trying to zero in on the winnability of the candidates.
The BJP on the other hand, in a bid to overcome the anti-incumbency factor has dropped 10 sitting MLAs while changing the constituencies of two ministers. The ministers Suresh Bharadwaj and Rakesh Pathania have been shifted from Shimla (Urban) and Nurpur to Kasumpti and Fatehpurrespectively.
Observers feel that the BJP had to play the gamble which also reflects its state of discomfort with regards to the polls. Interestingly the saffron party has not refrained from playing 'dynasty politics' by fielding family members of its leaders. This happens to be a typical case of preaching one thing and doing exactly the opposite. One can see the party's top leadership including Modi, Shah and others regularly attacking the Congress for promoting dynastic politics.
Another interesting thing in context of the BJP's candidates is that the camp of former Chief Minister Prem Kumar Dhumal has been 'decimated'. It is the camp led by the BJP's national president Jagat Prakash Nadda that has called the shots. Even Dhumal has not been fielded by the party despite the fact that he was desirous of contesting from Sujanpur from where he had been defeated last time despite being the chief ministerial face while the BJP had romped home.
The Left has decided to put its best foot forward by contesting 11 seats. It was earlier stated that it would contest 16 seats. The CPM has a strong presence in pockets and has been at the forefront of raising people's issues on every occasion. It has one MLA in Rakesh Singha in the outgoing assembly who represents Theog constituency. He will be contesting from the seat again.
The other prominent CPM candidates in fray include Tikender Panwar who is the former deputy mayor of Shimla from Shimla (Urban) seat, Vishal Shankta who is a former Himachal Pradesh University (HPU) Students' Central Association (SCA) president from Kotkhai, Kushal Bharadwaj who is a former general secretary of SCA from Jogindernagar and prominent farmers' leaders Dr Kuldip Tanwar from Kasumpti and Hotam Shonkla from Kullu.
"We are fighting against the anti-working class, anti-peasantry and-anti people policies of the BJP government. Our aim is to strengthen the Left presence in the state assembly by increasing our tally. In the other seats we will work to defeat the BJP while not having any alliance with any other party," said Sanjay Chauhan of the CPM who is also former mayor of Shimla.
The AAP has also announced its candidates. The party has been trying to woo the voters with the promises of good governance along with better health and education.
The election is a high stake affair for every party. A victory for the Congress can trigger the party's revival at the national level. If the BJP manages to repeat its government, it will break the tradition of Himachal electing alternative governments every five years. It would also be a vindication of the economic policies of the BJP's government at the centre as it has been facing flak on the issues of inflation and unemployment in the state.
The Left is looking towards further strengthening its presence in order to spread out further. For AAP it is an opportunity to get a foothold outside Delhi and Punjab.
Himachal has been among the better government states in the country. According to the Association for Democratic Reforms (ADR) 71% MLAs in the outgoing assembly have an educational qualification of graduation or above. Of the 68 MLAs, 19 (28%) have declared criminal cases against themselves with only 12% having serious ones.
Emotional Outbursts Mark Himachal Pradesh Politics
Both Congress, Bharatiya Janata Party are now becoming a hotbed of differences and defections
The cold winds blowing through the hills, and the heated efforts of political workers are competing with each other in Himachal Pradesh. The election campaign now enters into the final stage here. The polling is scheduled for November 12, and the potential candidates have barely a fortnight left.
Conducting elections in the state has always been a challenge for the Election Commission officials, not because of any law and order threat but due to the challenges posed by the difficult terrain and harsh weather conditions. This is the time when winter starts setting in and some of the mountains in the higher reaches are already donning the white mantle.
The forthcoming polls are the first when there is no heavyweight or 'super heavyweight' Chief Ministerial face leading either of the two traditional rivals, the Congress and the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). Till the previous polls, if it was leaders such as Dr Y. S. Parmar and Virbhadra Singh that had led the grand old party, the saffron camp was led by the likes of Shanta Kumar and Prem Kumar Dhumal.
The elections in 2017 had seen an aged and ailing Virbhadra Singh leading the Congress while it was Dhumal at the forefront for the BJP's camp. Both had moved out of the constituencies that they were representing.
Ironically, Dhumal lost from Sujanpur despite being the chief ministerial face of the party while Virbhadra had won from Arki. Congress' Virbhadra Singh passed away last year, and this time Dhumal has been denied a ticket by the BJP
Chief Minister Jai Ram Thakur is yet to 'graduate' to their stature. He is often dubbed as an 'accidental' chief minister given the circumstances under which he was anointed to the post after the BJP had swept the last Assembly polls in the state. Observers point out that he is leading the BJP's charge more in the capacity of the leader of the House than as a popular CM.
The Congress on the other hand is moving ahead under the model of collective leadership and fireworks are expected if it manages to secure a majority. There have been some very interesting developments in the run up to the polls till now.
The first is that both the Congress and the BJP have witnessed rebellions and defections. While these processes have come to be associated largely with the Congress in the past, they have come to hound the BJP as well. The BJP is a force that always took pride in calling itself a disciplined, cadre based unit besides being 'a party with a difference'. Its detractors are now referring to it as a 'party with differences'.
"The Congress was seen as a force fragmented into groups from much before but it is the factionalism in the BJP that has come to the fore in the distribution of the tickets and rebels raising their heads. Anyone who has an understanding of the affairs of the BJP can see how the 'Dhumal group' has come to be decimated and it is the group loyal to the party's national president Jagat Prakash Nadda that is calling the shots," pointed an observer.
There has been a lot of drama and emotional outpourings on display. Ram Lal Thakur , one of the senior most Congress leaders, found it difficult to contain his emotions when he quit as the vice president of the state unit, pointing at leaders pulling the party in different directions. Some BJP leaders have been seen in the same mode recently. Thakur had said that he would continue to work as the head of the election management committee.
Union Minister Anurag Thakur was also unable to control his emotions and tears last week while he addressed the people of Sujanpur. This is the constituency from where Dhumal, his father, had lost in 2017 and wanted to contest again this time. However, the party chose to field Ranjit Singh and Anurag had come to seek support for him. His voice kept choking as he mentioned Dhumal's commitment to the people, the party and the organisation.
Then it was Bilaspur's sitting MLA Suresh Thakur who reportedly cried when he was denied the ticket despite being close to Nadda. The party has instead fielded his protégé Trilok Jamwal who was also the chief minister's political advisor.
There was an emotional outburst from BJP's Praveen Sharma as well who filed his nomination as an independent in Mandi after being denied a ticket. In his strong message on social media he said, "Praveen symbolises thousands of workers of any political party on whose strength you come to power and then ignore the same workers".
It remains to be seen how many rebels the two main political parties are able to pacify by the time the votes are cast.
Another interesting narrative that has come up in the poll campaign till now is around the personality of former Prime Minister Indira Gandhi. Many observers feel that the Congress workers are repeatedly making references to her in a sustained effort to present a strong personality to counter the present day image of Prime Minister Narendra Modi that the BJP workers have been marketing.
It was during Congress leader Priyanka Gandhi's rally in Solan where she launched the party's poll campaign that the slogan 'Priyanka nahi yeh aandhi hai, doosri Indira Gandhi hai' (It is not Priyanka but a tornado, she is the second Indira Gandhi) had reverberated. The Congress old timers had gone around the town reminding the locals of Indira Gandhi's last rally at the same venue of Thodo Ground. Even Priyanka in her speech had made several references to Indira's love for Himachal and her respect for the hard working, honest people of the state.
Interestingly, it was a former BJP minister who made a reference to Indira Gandhi on social media in context of Anurag Thakur's emotional outburst in Sujanpur.
"Leaders have to maintain courage even in adverse circumstances. In this context, the example of former Prime Minister Indira Gandhi ji is very inspirational. Sanjay Gandhi's death was in an air accident. Indira ji maintained her patience even in this very sad moment.
"Although it was very difficult for a mother to have such patience in such a moment, she controlled herself and refrained from crying. When a journalist later asked her about this, Indira ji's answer was that I could cry as a mother but as the country's Prime Minister my crying could hurt the dignity of the Prime Minister's post. It is expected that the leaders will be able to take inspiration from this example of Indira ji," wrote Mohinder Nath Sofat who was a minister in the Shanta Kumar led BJP government in early 1990s.
The BJP' tagline for its 'Mission Repeat' is 'Naya Riwaz Banayenge, Phir BJP layenge' (we will start a new tradition by re-electing BJP). Jai Ram Thakur has been stating, "The country's history is witness to the fact that the Congress has always misled the people for power. When it was in power, the emphasis was on scams and breaking the country instead of public welfare. Come let's break the tradition and give a befitting response to the Congress leaders."
The Congress on the other hand has been calling for a change in the face of an 'inefficient' and 'anti people' BJP government in the state. As the chairman of the party's intellectual cell Vijay Pal Singh said, "It is not a vote to change the 'Satta' government but the 'Vyavastha' system."
This small state has around 60 lakh voters of which 2737845 are female, 2854945 males and 38 registered under the third gender category. The recent addition of voters includes 1.93 lakh voters between 18-19 years of age.