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Explained: With electorate vertically divided, how Mandi bypoll will shape future political discourse in Himachal Pradesh

Mandi bypoll in Himachal Pradesh: While Congress is harping on issues such as inflation, BJP is banking on Chief Minister Jai Ram Thakur for his influence among voters of his home district.

Written by Navjeevan Gopal , Edited by Explained Desk | Mandi |
Updated: October 30, 2021 10:12:18 am
Mandi bypoll, Mandi bye-election, Himachal Pradesh bypoll, Mandi voting, Mandi election, Jai Ram Thakur, Indian ExpressChief minister Jai Ram Thakur and BJP candidate Khushal Thakur before filing their nomination from mandi constituency on Thursday. (Express Photo by Pradeep Kumar)

With the Mandi parliamentary constituency in Himachal Pradesh going to polls Saturday, voters are vertically divided in picking the new Member of Parliament in the bypoll, necessitated after the death of two-time BJP MP Ram Swaroop Sharma. Here’s why the Mandi bypoll outcome is key to the future of the political discourse in Himachal Pradesh.

Why is the Mandi bypoll key to the future political discourse in Himachal Pradesh and why is the electorate vertically divided?

The issue of inflation is playing out in a big way to the advantage of Congress nominee Pratibha Singh, wife of late Virbhadra Singh who was a six-time Chief Minister. On the other hand, BJP is getting traction due to Chief Minister Jai Ram Thakur, who represents the Seraj constituency in Mandi district and has gone all out to campaign for party nominee Brigadier (retd) Khushal Thakur.

The poll outcome is being seen as a referendum on the performance of the CM and late CM Virbhadra Singh. Majority of the voters are annoyed over rising prices of fuel and its cascading effect on essential commodities but there are others who defend BJP and say the Covid pandemic was to blame for the spiralling costs and it was a universal phenomenon and hence, will have no bearing on the poll outcome.

Those complaining about the inflation say it is “unprecedented” but others like Rohit Malhotra, who has a general store in Mandi, talks about the Defence Budget in the wake of threats from China and Pakistan while defending BJP governments in the Centre and the state. “The BJP-led government brought Rafale jets for national security. People should understand these aspects also,” says Malhotra, showering praises on BJP nominee Brigadier Thakur for his role in the Kargil War and having an identity in contrast to Congress candidate Pratibha Singh, “whose only identity is that she is the wife of late Virbhadra Singh”.

Issues revolving around the bypoll?

Electors say Pratibha Singh’s remarks where she termed the Kargil War as a “small battle” was working in favour of Brigadier Thakur who is being hailed as a “Kargil War hero”. During the poll campaign, Thakur made it an issue, castigating Pratibha for her remarks, by saying, “As many as 527 Armymen lost their lives and 52 of them were from Himachal Pradesh and 12 from Mandi.”

Jaswinder Pal, who runs a chemist shop Kanaid in Mandi district says the Congress nominee “will pay dearly for calling the Kargil War a chhota yudh (small battle)”.

But he adds that Brigadier Thakur was also under scanner for “not pursuing” the cause of four times compensation to the land losers in the four-laning of the road from Nerchowk to Manali. Brigadier Thakur was the chief of the committee seeking four times compensation than the market price when Congress was in power in Himachal Pradesh. He is accused of dragging his feet on the issue after BJP came to power and made him the Chairman-cum-Managing Director of the Ex-servicemen Corporation.

The erstwhile Congress government had given compensation two times the market rate. Thakur told The Indian Express that it was the Congress government that issued a notification to give the compensation amount while acquiring land. Asked why he could not pursue the demand for four times compensation during the nearly four-year rule of the BJP government in the state, Thakur said, “Good you asked that. Two years were wasted in handling Covid pandemic…a committee had been formed to look into that”.

Mandi bypoll, Mandi bye-election, Himachal Pradesh bypoll, Mandi voting, Mandi election, Jai Ram Thakur, Indian Express Congress Candidate from mandi Parliamentary Pratibha Singh during her election Campaign at Bharmour in Chamba district. (Express Photo by Pradeep Kumar)

Vijay Malhan, who manufactures shawls and woollens in Haathi Than village near Bhunter in Kullu district said Brigadier Thakur was appointed as the CMD of the ex-servicemen corporation for going quiet on the compensation for the four-laning and that “stakeholders were miffed at him”.

He, however, adds that it was advantage BJP in the Mandi bypoll as there are BJP governments both at the Centre and the state and people usually vote for the ruling government. Apart from all this, Brigadier Thakur is primarily seeking votes for being a Kargil War hero and Pratibha is playing a “sympathy card” to seek votes in the name of Virbhadra Singh, he said.

Who are the star campaigners in the Mandi bypoll?

BJP shied away from bringing any star campaigner from the Centre for the bypoll. Even Minister of State for Finance Anuraag Thakur, who was among the list of star campaigners, did not arrive in Mandi. The BJP campaign in Mandi is largely centered around Chief Minister Jai Ram Thakur and other local leadership in Mandi.

However, Congress brought in campaigners like Kanhaiya Kumar, who recently joined Congress and senior leaders like former Union minister Anand Sharma and former Haryana CM Bhupinder Singh Hooda.

Chemist Jaswinder Pal from Kanaid said Congress conceded a self-goal by calling Kanhaiya Kumar for campaigning. “He is perceived to be anti-national and in Himachal Pradesh, there are lots of serving and ex-Armymen who would go against Congress for bringing in Kanhaiya Kumar to campaign.”

Officer on Special Duty (OSD) to Pratibha Singh, Amit Pal Singh, said, “People of the constituency wanted Punjab CM Charanjit Singh Channi more than Navjot Sidhu to campaign here but the schedule could not materialise due to clash in engagements of Channi and Pratibha Singh. Channi confirmed The Indian Express ahead of the Progressive Punjab Investors Summit on October 26 and 27 that he could not make it to Mandi due to his engagements.

Why are leaders shying from mentioning Modi and the Gandhi family?

A flavour of the 2014 and 2019 parliamentary polls, Modi is just a passing reference in BJP’s poll campaign – because of criticisms he faces for inflation and the ongoing farm agitation against three laws. Meanwhile, Congress nominee Pratibha Singh is focusing her poll pitch around a “sympathy card” of late Virbhdra Singh and electors say the Gandhi family-led opposition is “too weak to be invoked in the election”.

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What are the key takeaways?

It is difficult to decide who will win amid a vertical division among the electorate. If the inflation issue plays out, Congress nominee Pratibha Singh will win hands down. But if CM Jai Ram Thakur makes it due to his regional connect, BJP nominee Thakur may make it to the Lok Sabha.

Arjun Singh, a resident of Thanot village in Mandi constituency, who runs a bus at the Mandi bus stand vouches for BJP because of Thakur, who is the first CM from the region.

But a government employee at the same bus stand, while confirming he is speaking on anonymity, said “The overall sentiment is against the ruling government in the state.”

Meanwhile, on their way home and sitting next to each other, two passengers in a bus are divided with one quipping “kamal khilega to kuch milega (If lotus, BJP’s symbol, blooms, people will benefit) and the other discounting BJP’s performance in the Centre and in Himachal Pradesh.

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