The Himachal Pradesh (HP) elections saw the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) securing a comfortable victory under the leadership of Prem Kumar Dhumal, who unfortunately lost his seat from Sujanpur. The BJP secured 44 seats out of a total 68. The Congress suffered a loss of about 15 seats and could win only 21 seats. This time, two independents and one Communist Party of India (Marxist), or CPM candidate, also emerged winners. Stalwarts like Gulab Singh Thakur, Satpal Singh Satti, Ravinder Ravi, and Randhir Singh from the BJP and Kaul Singh Thakur, Sudhir Sharma, Thakur Singh Bharmouri and Parkash Chaudhary from the Congress have suffered a defeat. The all-time-high turnout of 74.61% establishes that the wave was anti-establishment.
Though Gujarat also witnessed a BJP victory, HP’s social and economic issues differ a lot from the former’s. Prime Minister Narendra Modi is from Gujarat and has consistently banked upon the Hindutva card in assembly and parliamentary elections there but the same has no resonance in HP. Again, while politics in Gujarat is greatly influenced by societal divisions that play a significant part in elections, the HP electorate is largely concerned with issues of governance and development. The older issues that used to influence voting patterns like old and new Himachal, horticulturist-agriculturist divide and caste alignments are not so significant today.
The BJP has entrenched its foothold in the tribal areas and older Himachal now, thus obliterating the tag of a regional voice within the state.
In the current elections in HP, the Modi wave seemed to be absent. The election furore was not so high and robust party exercises and election festivities weren’t visible. Factors like anti-incumbency, corruption, crime, unemployment, caste and the goods and services tax (GST) played a crucial role. Also, local factors like roads, water, employment, horticulture, and unfulfilled promises affected the mandate.
HP politics has broadly revolved around a bipolarity for over 35 years now, with the Congress and BJP being the chief contenders. The social stratification of the state has transformed in the last few decades from the horizontal manifestations in the shape of different parties and independents to a vertical political reality of party polarization between the two. The third alternative has failed, except for a few rare successes. The Left has been a consistent player and this time too, the CPM has shown its presence by winning one seat from Theog with an increased vote share.
In the current elections, despite the delay in naming Dhumal as chief ministerial candidate, the decision helped the BJP. Dhumal not only reinvigorated the election campaign, he also succeeded in uniting several party members peeved over ticket allocation. However, his defeat from Sujanpur has come as a surprise. It is attributed to the last-minute shift of constituency from Hamirpur to Sujanpur, inadequate contact with the Sujanpur electorate and insufficiency of his personal presence in the constituency on account of leading the BJP campaign in the state. However, this doesn’t rule out his becoming chief minister as a reward for his success in leading the BJP to victory in the state. Once appointed, he can get elected to the assembly within six months.
The campaign sweep last week by central leaders like Modi, Smriti Irani, Amit Shah, Rajnath Singh, Arun Jaitley, Sushma Swaraj, J.P. Nadda, and chief ministers like Yogi Adityanath, M.L. Khattar, and Shivraj Singh Chauhan gave the BJP a strong lead.
Compared to this, the Congress remained a divided house as relations between Virbhadra Singh and organizational head Thakur Sukhwinder Singh remained strained. The divide was quite discernible. This resulted in Virbhadra taking over the campaign and then neglecting areas influenced by Sukhwinder Singh. Supporters of G.S. Bali also raised slogans in support of his bid to be CM, in front of Rahul Gandhi.
Defection is also not new to the state. Anil Sharma, a minister in the Virbhadra government and son of former Union minister Pandit Sukh Ram, still an influential voice from Mandi district, left Congress to join BJP. Before him, Maheshwar Singh, a BJP dissident, merged his Himachal Lokhit Party with BJP in 2016.
Although Anil Sharma has won from Mandi and Maheshwar Singh lost from Kullu, this raises questions about the BJP’s choice of candidates as it has been critical of them in the past.
Allocation of tickets by BJP in constituencies like Banjar, Palampur, Chamba, Bhoranj and Shimla Gramin and by Congress in Shimla Urban, Mandi, Theog and few others had repercussion on the results. Four Congress candidates are the wards of Virbhadra Singh, Kaul Singh, R.N. Sharma and B.B. Butail. Although Vikramaditya Singh and Ashish Butail have won, their nominations smack of nepotism.
Harish K. Thakur is an associate professor and chairman, department of political science, Himachal Pradesh University.