New Delhi: In a resounding victory, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) wrested power in Himachal Pradesh, winning 44 of the 68 assembly seats, five years after it was voted out of power in the hill state.

While the win will help the BJP further expand its footprint in North India, it has translated into the 14th electoral defeat of the Congress party since the 2014 Lok Sabha elections. The BJP-led National Democratic Alliance (NDA) is now in power in all of the states in north India with the exception of Punjab and Delhi.

The BJP managed to secure 44 seats with a vote share of 48.8% while the Congress party was reduced to 21 seats and a vote share reduced to 41.7%.

Even though the result falls in line with the state’s cyclical pattern of alternating power between the Congress party and the BJP every five years since 1985, it is a bittersweet victory for the BJP. Two stalwarts of the party—its chief ministerial candidate Prem Kumar Dhumal and state unit president Satpal Singh Satti, both lost in the Sujanpur and Una constituencies, respectively.

“Personal loss is not of much importance. The BJP victory which has been brought to the state is important. I am thankful to the people of the state for voting for BJP. In politics, sometimes one wins, sometimes one loses. I was not expecting this loss and will analyse it," Dhumal, the BJP’s chief ministerial candidate, told reporters.

Leaders in the party say the win for BJP in the 68-seat assembly represents a demand for development.

The election, a two-horse race between the Congress and the BJP, was being seen as a neck-and-neck fight between the two parties, with little anti-incumbency against the ruling Congress party. With much of his popularity intact over the past five years, 83-year-old chief minister Virbhadra Singh was pitted against Prime Minister Narendra Modi, who was spearheading the BJP’s campaign in the state.

However, a last-minute announcement by the BJP of former chief minister Dhumal as its chief ministerial candidate gave the BJP a shot in the arm. It dispelled speculation of a leadership crisis in the party, clearing the confusion of voters as well as party cadres.

The party fought the election on the plank of development, raising issues of unemployment and safety of women in the aftermath of the rape and murder of a minor girl in Shimla district in July. The party also targeted Virbhadra Singh over the alleged disproportionate assets case against him which is being probed by the Central Bureau of Investigation and the Enforcement Directorate.

“I accept the victory of BJP. Being the chief minister of the state, I take full responsibility of our performance here," Virbhadra Singh told reporters.

His son Vikramaditya Singh, who was contesting from his constituency of Shimla Rural, managed to make an entry in politics by securing his seat by a margin of around 5,000 votes.

For the Congress, a loss in Himachal Pradesh means that the party is now in power only in Punjab in north India. In its campaign, the party had tried to corner the BJP on its recent implementation of the goods and services tax (GST) and demonetization.

“Virbhadra Singh was campaigning alone for his party with no support from the Congress’s central leadership. On the other hand, right from Prime Minister Narendra Modi to BJP president Amit Shah, senior BJP leaders held rallies across the state," said Vikas Singh, assistant professor of political science at Himachal Pradesh University.

pretika.k@livemint.com

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