Kangra, Hamirpur, Una (Himachal Pradesh): Addressing a rally in Sirmaul district on 31 October, barely nine days before D-day, the Bharatiya Janta Party (BJP) president Amit Shah declared Prem Kumar Dhumal as the party’s chief ministerial candidate for the upcoming Himachal Pradesh poll. It worked wonders for the rank and file in the party, which, like the electorate, was confused about who would lead the party in the event of a win; almost overnight they were energized, especially 300km away in Dhumal’s home turf Hamirpur.

It is another matter whether this alone would influence the outcome, but there is no denying the energy among the cadres—who claim that until the announcement, the Congress, despite the state’s recent electoral history, was in with a chance to get re-elected.

Prem Kumar Dhumal is BJP’s chief ministerial candidate for the Himachal Pradesh elections. Photo: HT
Prem Kumar Dhumal is BJP’s chief ministerial candidate for the Himachal Pradesh elections. Photo: HT

“Power alternates between the Congress and BJP every five years which should have given the BJP an upper hand in this election. However, lack of clarity on who would lead the party had left voters contemplating. Since Dhumal’s name was announced as the party’s chief ministerial candidate things have changed. Seems like it is time for the maroon topi (caps) to come out," says Arun Sharma, 40, a resident of Hamirpur.

Sharma is referring to the traditional Himachali caps or the ‘Bushehri topi’, the colour of which has come to indicate a person’s political affiliation in this hill state. While a green band on the cap signifies support for the Congress, a maroon band signals loyalty to the BJP.

With the Congress working on ‘Mission Repeat’ after a thumping victory in the neighbouring state of Punjab, the BJP has its eyes set on ‘Mission-50 plus’, to win more than 50 of the 68 constituencies here and expand its footprint in the Hindi heartland after a historic victory in Uttar Pradesh.

Battle for Kangra

Politically considered to be a key district in the state, Kangra holds 15 of the 68 assembly seats and is thus, instrumental in determining the victor. In 2012, the Congress party had won 10 of the 15 seats here, taking its total to 36, sufficient for it to form the government.

Adjoining Kangra are the districts of Hamirpur and Una which have five assembly seats each, while Hamirpur is politically significant by virtue of being Dhumal’s home turf. Situated in the western corner of the state, this region shares its border with Punjab which makes it culturally and topographically different from the rest of Himachal.

A Congress rally in Kangra. Photo: PTI
A Congress rally in Kangra. Photo: PTI

“Over the years upper Himachal has reaped most of the benefits of the state’s development as Virbhadra belongs to that region. Now that Dhumal has been projected as the CM face of the BJP, the entire region from Kangra to Una will vote for him. He will bring development and employment opportunities to lower Himachal," says Pushkar Sharma, a Dharamshala-based advocate.

On its part the incumbent Congress undertook several measures to address the alienation. Not only did it forward the name of Dharamshala in Kangra district over Shimla, the state capital, for the centre’s Smart City project but also brought the Central University that was announced for the state in 2009 to Dharamshala from Dehra which falls in the Hamirpur parliamentary constituency. Earlier in March, the state cabinet declared Dharamshala the second capital of Himachal Pradesh, after Shimla.

Development agenda aside, BJP and Congress have kept the caste arithmetic in mind while selecting candidates for seats in Kangra

Development agenda aside, both parties have kept the caste arithmetic in mind while selecting candidates. Rajputs are in a majority in this district, constituting around 34% of the electorate, closely followed by OBCs (32%) and Brahmins (20%). Sujan Singh Pathania from the Fatehpur seat and Rakesh Pathania, who is contesting from the Nurpur seat, are strong Rajput leaders of the Congress and BJP respectively and both hold a sway over their caste votes in Kangra. Interestingly, both Dhumal and chief minister Virbhadra Singh are Rajputs. Similarly both parties have fielded OBC candidates in the Kangra seat which has a predominant OBC population.

However, BJP’s lineup of star campaigners seems to have outdone Congress. While Virbhadra has been holding public meetings across the district, Congress vice-president Rahul Gandhi made a pit stop at Kangra during his one-day campaign in the state on Monday. As for the BJP, party leaders from Shah to Uttar Pradesh chief minister Yogi Adityanath have campaigned here while Prime Minister Narendra Modi has addressed rallies for three days across the district.

Centre versus state

Given the large number of youths who join the army from these three districts the issue of One Rank One Pension (OROP) has gained currency. Announced by the BJP-led National Democratic Alliance on 6 September 2015, the scheme has earned the party many supporters in this region.

“We have been demanding OROP for years but only Modi took up the issue. He understands that our pensions need to be revised to keep up with the growing inflation. All faujis (soldiers) are with Modi in this election," says Puran Singh, an ex-serviceman from Kangra.

Photo: Pradeep Gaur/Mint
Photo: Pradeep Gaur/Mint

To counter the centre’s growing popularity, the Congress is depending on the state government employees who account for about 250,000 of the state’s population and the youth who form 734,522 of the electorate. Doling out sops ahead of the polls in April this year, Virbhadra Singh had launched an unemployment allowance scheme and decided to regularize contract employees after three years in service, instead of the prescribed five.

In its election manifesto released on 1 November, the party among other things had promised 150,000 jobs for youths and regularization of contract workers in two years.

“State government jobs are the biggest source of employment in the state. People here do not have land holdings, nor does Himachal have thriving industries. This will work in Congress’s favour," says a state government employee from Una on conditions of anonymity.

Octogenarian versus septuagenarian

Navigating along the undulating terrain of the state at the age of 83, Virbhadra Singh is spearheading the Congress party’s campaign, fighting anti-incumbency in what is widely seen as his last election. Seeking a seventh term, the six-time chief minister popularly known as ‘Raja Sahab’ has been holding over six public meetings across Himachal Pradesh every day.

Once the BJP projected 73-year-old Dhumal as its chief minister candidate, the fight, which was viewed as a face-off between Modi and Virbhadra, has transformed into one between an octogenarian and a septuagenarian.

Himachal Pradesh CM and Congress veteran Virbhadra Singh. Photo: AP
Himachal Pradesh CM and Congress veteran Virbhadra Singh. Photo: AP

While Singh’s popularity remains unblemished despite the BJP levelling charges of corruption, Dhumal too enjoys goodwill among voters. However, infighting in both the parties may spring a surprise in some constituencies.

Congress state committee chief Sukhwinder Singh Sukku, who is contesting from Nadaun in Hamirpur, has been at loggerheads with the chief minister over ticket distribution, while in Palampur, rebel BJP candidate and former MLA Praveen Sharma is contesting against the party’s candidate Indu Goswami, who party leaders claim, has been handpicked by Modi.

Analysts believe the BJP holds the upper hand, especially given the recent practice of voting out the incumbent.

“In Himachal people vote for a local face. Virbhadra Singh literally forced the BJP to clear the air around its CM face which has eventually come to benefit the party. One also cannot negate the Modi factor given he is the Prime Minister and has worked here for seven years. Though a Modi wave, as was visible in the 2014 Lok Sabha election where BJP won all four seats, is missing this time, he will definitely play a role in influencing the undecided voters," says Mohindar Singh Chauhan, professor of Political Science at Government Degree College, Nagrota in Kangra.

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