At 12.30 pm on Thursday (December 8), the Congress had opened up a significant advantage over the BJP in Himachal Pradesh, with leads in 40 of the 68 seats. If this situation holds, the Congress will have a clear majority in the Assembly.
The BJP had won one seat and was leading in another 24. Independent candidates were leading in 3 seats.
The trends indicated that Himachal Pradesh had chosen to stay with the tradition of alternate Congress and BJP governments, which has been the pattern since 1985. Indications in the morning that Chief Minister Jai Ram Thakur may succeed in bucking the trend seem to have been reversed.
Here’s what to make of the trends as the counting of votes continues in the Assembly election in Himachal.
1. Anti-incumbency and the hill state’s time-honoured tradition of not repeating a sitting government have prevailed
Himachal Pradesh takes pride in the fact that it doesn’t let any ruling party rest on its laurels. For the last 37 years, it hasn’t voted for a sitting government, resulting in power alternating between the Congress and the BJP. Even the two most popular Chief Ministers of the state, Virbhadra Singh of the Congress and Prem Kumar Dhumal of the BJP, had failed to change this political culture.
The voters appear to have remained true to this tradition in these elections as well — even though the BJP leadership pulled out all the stops in the campaign and Prime Minister Narendra Modi personally exhorted people to change this “riwaaz’’ of changing parties.
They seem to have chosen the Congress overlooking the continuing crisis of leadership in the party and the massive void left behind by the demise of the six-time Chief Minister Virbhadra Singh last year. In the wave of support for the BJP in Gujarat, the Congress seems to have retained some affection in the hill state that credits its formation to former Prime Minister Indira Gandhi.
Government employees form a formidable vote bank in the state, which for long had little industry or other avenues of employment. Even today, they number over 2 lakh and continue to sway around 5 per cent of the vote. This lobby had been agitating for the revival of the Old Pension Scheme for long, and both the Congress and the AAP (which, however, largely pulled out of the campaign midway to focus on Gujarat) had promised to bring it back.
The BJP had made no such overtures, resisting pressures of bowing to a popular demand with serious financial implications.
There was a feeling among the people that CM Jai Ram Thakur, despite being clean and upright, was letting a group of wily people close to him run the government.
The frequent change of chief secretaries — the state saw as many as seven officials in the post in the last five years — the police recruitment scam, and some hastily taken decisions such as the Ari Nagar Panchayat notification and the draft Shimla development plan, which had to be rolled back, added to the impression that the CM was not in charge.
Also, the BJP’s bid to scotch anti-incumbency by denying tickets to 11 sitting legislators led to a large number of rebels jumping into the fray. They cut into the party vote share in a state where the winning margins tend to be low.
The apple lobby, which dominates upper Himachal Pradesh and holds the key to the state’s prosperity, has been sore at the lower prices given to it by the Adani Group. The increase of GST on cartons further squeezed the profits of apple growers. The farm agitation had also resonated among apple growers, who came out strongly against the alleged bid to corporatise horticulture. The unhappiness of this prosperous and traditionally dominant group is likely to have contributed to the anger against the government and the BJP.
A large number of youths in Himachal Pradesh join the armed forces every year. The central government’s Agniveer scheme, wherein soldiers would be recruited for only four years, had led to much heartburn in the state. Even veterans like Major Vijai Mankotia, who had moved to the BJP on the eve of the elections, had expressed their apprehensions about the scheme. In the villages, there was widespread disquiet about this “loss of livelihood.’’
Price rise, which had led to the BJP’s debacle in the October 2021 bypolls — the Congress had won all the four seats, including the Lok Sabha seat of Mandi and Assembly seats of Fatehpur, Arki, and Jubbal Kotkhai — was a major pain point among rural women who cited the spiralling price of LPG to make their point. This also punctured the BJP’s claim of a double-engine government since the inflation was blamed on the Centre.