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Himachal Pradesh chief minister Virbhadra Singh (third form left) at an election rally in Solan. Photo: Ramesh Pathania/Mint
Himachal Pradesh chief minister Virbhadra Singh (third form left) at an election rally in Solan. Photo: Ramesh Pathania/Mint

Congress up against anti-incumbency in Himachal elections

While Congress is focusing on its record in office, the BJP is promising development and good governance to win Himachal Pradesh elections

Solan, Shimla, Mandi (Himachal Pradesh): The hills have their own issues which makes the politics in Himachal Pradesh different. People are very aware here and vote keeping their development in mind," Chaman Lal, a resident of Shimla, said.

Lal’s response captures the transactional mindset of the average voter in Himachal Pradesh, one manifestation of this is, beginning in 1993, a regime change every five years—alternately between the Congress and the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP).

Going by this logic, it is the BJP’s turn this time around in assembly elections, due on 9 November. If this trend does indeed hold up, then it will do more than just return the saffron party to power in the 68-member legislative assembly. It will have expanded the party’s saffron sweep to record proportions; the corollary of this is that the Congress would have suffered yet another defeat—its 14th since 2014.

Vote for change

Leading the two main political parties in the poll scheduled for 9 November will be two veterans. The Congress is led by 83-year-old incumbent chief minister Virbhadra Singh and the BJP by the 73-year-old former CM, Prem Kumar Dhumal.

Former Himachal Pradesh chief minister and BJP’s lead candidate Prem Kumar Dhumal. Photo: HT
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Former Himachal Pradesh chief minister and BJP’s lead candidate Prem Kumar Dhumal. Photo: HT

The outcome will depend crucially on who carries the districts of Solan, Shimla and Mandi which account for 23 of the 68 assembly constituencies in the state. In the 2012 assembly election, it was a very tight contest in these districts, with the Congress eventually gaining the upper hand with 13 seats and the BJP coming a close second with nine. One seat was secured by an independent candidate.

“Himachal Pradesh has so far voted for change each time. This way, its voters get the best from each government. But this time, the contest is tough. On the one hand, there is a leadership crisis in the Congress, along with corruption allegations; on the other hand, certain decisions taken by the BJP government at the centre may act against the party in the state," said Ashok Behl, a resident of Solan.

In the last assembly elections, the Congress formed the government after securing 36 seats with a vote share of 42.8%, while BJP won 26 seats with a vote share of 38.47%.

In the last assembly elections, the Congress formed the government after securing 36 seats with a vote share of 42.8%, while BJP won 26 seats with a vote share of 38.47%

The state has an electorate of around five million, approximately 3.4 million of whom fall in 25-60-year age category.

For the Congress government, a recent incident of rape and its handling of the case has dented its record.

In July, a minor girl was raped and murdered in Kotkhai in Shimla district. The case which was dubbed the “Gudiya rape and murder case" was handed over to the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI).

“The way the Congress government handled the Gudiya rape case, people want change after that. It was a failure on the part of the government. With that there are also corruption charges against the chief minister which are also a factor. Though, the charges have not been proven yet," said Sunny Kumar, 25-year-old student who is pursuing his Masters from Himachal Pradesh University in Shimla.

According to the National Crime Records Bureau, in 2015, 1,289 crimes against women were registered in Himachal Pradesh compared to 3,27,394 cases for all India.

The BJP has seized on this issue and has promised to start a “Gudiya helpline" across police stations to ensure safety for girls and women. The state has 7,34,522 voters between 18-25 of whom 3,50,992 are women.

Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi during an election rally ahead of state assembly elections at Una District in Himachal Pradesh on Sunday. Photo: AFP
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Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi during an election rally ahead of state assembly elections at Una District in Himachal Pradesh on Sunday. Photo: AFP

Worryingly for the Congress, Virbhadra Singh is also under probe by CBI and the Enforcement Directorate in an alleged disproportionate assets case.

At a public meeting in Solan, Singh sought to spin this as vendetta politics. “They may be our political opposition but they are not my enemy. But BJP believes their political opposition to be their enemy. They believe that if they are in power, the opposition needs to be troubled – I have suffered from this myself."

From the BJP’s point of view, the point of worry is the roll out of the goods and services tax (GST).

“GST is a complicated process. It is difficult for small businesses to make the transition without any support from the government. People are still trying to figure out the process. It has added an additional burden on the people," said M.C. Dutta, who runs a pharmacy in Sanjauli, in Kasumpti assembly constituency.

Debating development

Interestingly, the political rivals have made development the central focus of their campaigns.

While the Congress is focusing on its record in office, BJP has linked its promise of development with good governance. Both appeals are drawing mixed responses.

“The Congress government in this tenure has worked for the youth of the state. There have been a large number of training institutions that have been started in various districts across the state. The government has also focused on increasing job opportunities in the state," Hem Raj, who is pursuing a degree in law and is a resident of Mandi district, said.

The Congress, in its manifesto released on Wednesday, promised 150,000 more jobs.

The Congress, in its manifesto, promised 150,000 more jobs in Himachal Pradesh if they come to power

The party has also promised to work on increasing the daily wage paid out as part of the Mahatama Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme or MGNREGS.

Addressing a public meeting on 30 October, BJP president Amit Shah said, “If BJP comes to power we will stop all mafia activities and corruption on a priority and focus on generating employment opportunities for the people especially youth."

He had added, “There are so many possibilities in Himachal Pradesh but you had a CM who only did Bhoomi Pujan of projects and never brought them to a stage of inauguration."

The BJP, in its vision document, has promised all-weather roads, piped drinking water to every household, helicopter ambulance services and employment opportunities for the youth.

“Since there is a BJP government in the centre, a BJP government in the state may help in bringing more development and attention to the state," said Dilbagh Singh, in Nalagrah assembly constituency in Solan district.

Leadership

In this election, both the Congress and BJP are facing a leadership crisis, accentuated by in-fighting.

To launch his son Vikramaditya Singh, Virbhadra has chosen to contest from Arki and vacated the Shimla (Rural) constituency for him. The party is also facing infighting between the chief minister and congress state committee chief Sukhwinder Singh Sukku.

“There is always a sentiment of anti-incumbency in Himachal Pradesh polls and that is always a key factor in assembly elections. On the development front, the state government has done well. Leadership will play a crucial role in this election," said Harish K. Thakur, associate professor, Himachal Pradesh University in Shimla.

In a further jolt to the Congress, days before the election, cabinet minister Anil Sharma has joined BJP. Sharma is the son of former Union minister Sukh Ram—who was convicted in a telecom scam—and will represent BJP from Mandi, a bastion of their family. Sukh Ram was elected from the seat from 1962 to 1984 while Sharma is a three-time MLA from Mandi and former Rajya Sabha member.

“Anil Sharma and his father have a very strong following in Mandi. People are thankful for the development that has happened in this area during their tenure. There are some people who are worried about his switch from Congress to BJP so close to the election," Dharmender Kumar, a resident of Brindavani village in Mandi assembly constituency, said.

The BJP ended speculation over who will lead the party’s campaign in the state and declared the name of 73-year-old Dhumal as the chief ministerial face of the party. The two-time chief minister is popular among BJP cadre.

However, the party is facing in-fighting over distribution of tickets, leading to some sitting MLAs being dropped.

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