Himachal Pradesh: Anti-incumbency, A Heavy Load To Carry
Campaigning heats up as state goes to poll on November 12
Politics is hotting up in Himachal Pradesh as November 12, the date of polling approaches. The political milieu prevailing in the state this time has never been the case before. If one studies the poll campaign of the two main contestants, Congress and the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), it seems that the Congress is pitted not against an individual and not a party. The BJP here is solely relying on and campaigning in the name of Prime Minister Narendra Modi.
The Citizen had reported this months ago, and it is now on display in the state as the BJP's campaigners are not even referring to any achievements by the party's incumbent government or its Chief Minister Jai Ram Thakur. It is only PM Modi's name being invoked.
PM Modi's larger than life image, built with the help of a pliant media, is the sole motto of the aggressive campaigns being done by the BJP's foot soldiers. The BJP is facing a heavy anti-incumbency wave in this small hill state.
Meanwhile, the Congressmen are sticking to local issues of the old pension scheme, employment and inflation. This was experienced by this reporter while travelling to some of the remote interiors of the state. Meeting fellow travellers in local buses, interacting with a cross section of the people in various villages and towns, has relieved the mood of the voters.
It was interesting to note a conversation between a private school teacher and a bus conductor, on the way from Nadaun to Hamirpur. The former was complaining about inflation and underemployment.
"It is difficult to make ends meet. My institution makes me sign a payment voucher for Rs 15,000 but actually pays me Rs 8,000. We are annoyed that the state government never addresses our concerns. They instituted committees and kept the things pending," he rued.
The conductor, a foot soldier of the BJP, was quick to retort, "You people do not understand anything. Look at how Modi abrogated Article 370 in Kashmir. Our army men who faced stone pelting mobs daily can now move around without any such hindrance. Modi is going all out to remove corruption by making every procedure digital so that there are no financial irregularities. Above all you are being made available free ration and direct benefit transfers."
Unable to comprehend what has hit them and is making their lives miserable, the people are trying to navigate a maze. Another bus driver of a private bus told this reporter, while waiting for the road to be cleared of boulders on the stretch between Jahu and Ner Chowk, "I fail to comprehend why my contemporaries working with the Himachal Roadways Transport Corporation (HRTC) get Rs 70,000 as wages, while I have to make do with Rs 12,000 per month. On top of this is the fear of being laid off anytime. Modi is doing a good thing by privatising every sector. It will bring parity."
However, he was critical of the political class in general, "they need to be paid daily wages only. They secure high emoluments for themselves along with other perks and even pensions. Even the present state government is no different," he said.
As one moved into Mandi district there was evidence of what has changed in Himachal Pradesh in the past five years. In 2017 the BJP swept to power winning 44 of the 68 seats. Mandi had emerged as the new power centre in the state where the saffron party had won nine of the 10 seats that were in the offing.
The Congress had scored a zero, and the sole independent winner in Jogindernagar threw his weight behind the BJP and is now a party candidate.
With the BJP's chief ministerial face Prem Kumar Dhumal biting the dust in Sujanpur constituency of Hamirpur, the BJP chose Jai Ram Thakur from Seraj constituency in Mandi as the new chief minister. With his soft spoken, youthful image and easy accessibility, Thakur was slated to emerge as a tall leader.
But being an affable person and an efficient political leader are two different things. He came to be known as someone who towed the centre's line and did not take strong state centric decisions on his own, something that his predecessors in the party Shanta Kumar and even Dhumal were known for.
This time around the mood in Mandi district is quite different and observers expect the BJP's tally to come down considerably. The people accuse the government under him of concentrating development in just a couple of constituencies including his own.
There has been a lot of opposition to the project of building an international airport in Balh valley. There is a lot of dissatisfaction among the people on the compensation paid for their lands acquired for the four lane projects.
"Tall promises had been made last time about developing water sports facilities in the district, improving the infrastructure on the temple circuit and other local projects but nothing has come of it," said an observer.
An interesting observation came from a barber Ranjit Kumar in Mandi town, "Jai Ram Thakur does not promote himself in his speeches. He is asking for votes in Modi's name, to 'strengthen the PM'. But we have even issues with Modi and his central government that has failed to generate jobs and curtain inflation.
"Take for example the entire 'Beti Bachao Beti Padhao' campaign. How do they expect people to purchase expensive stationery with a high goods and services tax (GST) tag? A thin notebook costs nothing less than Rs 50."
His words were proved correct in the next couple of hours when in a media interaction Jai Ram Thakur said, "Himachal needs a double engine and for that people need to strengthen Modi. He has made it his home and has a sense of belonging to it along with the love for the people."
Thakur said that the BJP has a strong leadership at both local and national level and the latter was giving strength to the party in the state by devoting time for the campaign.
He tore into the Congress campaign taking potshots at the multiple chief ministerial aspirants in the party while also saying, "They need to give many clarifications. They had promised a government job to every household in 2012.
"They had also promised to give unemployment allowances. They had also promised to curtail inflation. Nothing was delivered. At present those whose own guarantee is questionable are giving guarantees to the voters"
When asked by this reporter on his biggest achievement and also something which he wanted to achieve and could not, he diplomatically responded, "the Covid 19 outbreak was a big hindrance. It led to exhaustion of time and revenue. But we tried our best to introduce new initiatives and whatever we did was 'Garib ke kareeb' (close to the poor)."
On the issue of whether he would be made the Chief Minister once again if BJP manages to form the government he said, "After winning on the last occasion I was told to lead the government and work for the people. Now I have been given the task of leading the party to victory. The party leadership decides who will be the chief minister and there have been indications to that effect."
The people in the district say that even if the BJP loses in the state, the district might retain its claim on the chief minister's chair if veteran Congress leader Kaul Singh, one of the front runners for the post, is chosen to lead the government. An eight time MLA, he is in the fray from Darang constituency. But such things remain far-fetched for now.
Mandi (Sadar) constituency is witnessing an interesting battle between two dynasties. The Congress has fielded Champa Thakur who is the daughter of Kaul Singh Thakur against Anil Sharma who is the son of former telecommunication minister Sukh Ram.
The latter has been a case to watch as he has been fielded once again by the BJP despite him attacking the party on numerous occasions. Earlier he had done the same while being in the party.
He has come to be known as the 'opposition in the ruling party'. Sharma's son Aashray had joined the Congress ahead of the 2019 polls to contest the Lok Sabha polls only to return to the saffron fold recently.
Sharma had lost his cabinet berth and was sidelined all this while. This party hopping has irked the people of the town and the BJP's narrative on the Congress being a proponent of dynastic politics has taken a hit.
The contest has assumed significance with a former BJP spokesperson throwing his hat in the ring as an independent.
Both the Congress and the BJP are facing the heat from the revels across the state. The rebels can be spoilers as constituencies being small witness close contests where margins are quite close.