With Chief Election Commission Achal Kumar Joti signalling that the Himachal Pradesh assembly elections may be held in the first half of November, a poll atmosphere has started to set in.
On Tuesday, Prime Minister Narendra Modi, who visited Bilaspur to inaugurate an AIIMS, described Chief Minister Virbhadra Singh as a zamanati chief minister (CM out on bail), signalling that the corruption charges against the CM will be BJP’s biggest weapon. It was Modi’s third recent visit to Himachal, after rallies in Mandi and Shimla as part of the BJP’s parivartan campaign. Rahul Gandhi’s visit to Mandi on Saturday, on the other hand, is the first to the state by any top Congress leader in the last nine months.
The BJP believes it is poised to win, helped by “Modi magic” and an anti-incumbency trend that has seen Himachal change hands every five years, except in 1985 when Virbhadra led the Congress to a second successive victory. Victories in two assembly bypolls and the Shimla Municipal Corporation, besides Uttarakhand and UP, have raised the BJP’s confidence in Himachal, known as “Devbhumi” and a “soft Hindutva” state.
Virbhadra, 83, is not giving up either, despite the odds stacked against him — age, corruption cases and an indifferent Congress that apparently wants him out. Virbhadra is in the race not just for the Congress or himself, but also to ensure son Vikramaditya a place in the assembly and the party. Last month, father and son toured the Shimla Rural constituency together. Virbhadra had won from here in 2012, but Vikramaditya may contest the seat this time.
“I have been working hard in the constituency. I fully know the pulse of the people ,” Virbhadra says. “A lot of development has happened here… No one else really knows what’s the roadmap to this area’s development.” Stressing that the party will decide on tickets, he says: “I too favour one family, one ticket. I have made my choice known.”
Vikramaditya says there has been “record development” in Himachal since 2012, with job schemes, opening of colleges in interior areas, and upgrade of schools. “The Congress will form the government,” he says.
The Congress slogan, coined by Vikramaditya, is “Mission Repeat 2012” while the BJP’s is Mission 50 (out of 68 seats). BJP president Amit Shah said at a rally last month in Kangra that the party was going to “break all records” this time.
Using its organisational strengths, BJP and Sangh Parivar cadres began work on the polls three months ago. A 22-day Parivartan Rath Yatra — a n outreach programme that saw visits by top leaders including CMs Yogi Adityanath, Raman Singh and Shivraj Chouhan — aside from mahila sammelans, Dalit swabhiman sammelans, Jan Samark Abhiyan and Hisab Mange Himachal have kept up the tempo right down to the booth level.
The party has not yet announced a chief minister candidate, but it is an open secret that former CM Prem Kumar Dhumal and Union Health Minister J P Nadda are both vying for the nomination. Dhumal, a two-time CM, was instrumental in widening the party’s base in previously no-go areas such as Shimla’s apple belt and tribal areas, and inroads into Congress-held Mandi, Solan and Sirmaur.
Nadda, who was a minister in Dhumal’s cabinet, was handpicked by former BJP president Nitin Gadkari as national general secretary in 2010 and is now considered part of the BJP’s top national hierarchy. In the Bilaspur rally, Modi praised Nadda for his new initiatives in the health ministry.
Most of the BJP’s anti-Congress slogans and audio-video publicity masala are based on the corruption charges against Virbhadra. The CM and his wife Pratibha Singh, a former MP, are on bail from the CBI court. The latest dent to the government’s image was the rape and murder of a 16-year-old schoolgirl in Shimla and the arrest of top police officers including an IGP following the death in custody of one of the suspects. BJP poll strategists believe this single episode has destroyed the government’s credibility enough. “In my 64-year political career, Himachal’s image had never been hit so badly as by these two issues — Virbhadra’s corruption tag and the rape-murder. Himachal’s head hangs in shame as the whole country talks of these issues,” says BJP veteran Shanta Kumar.
Factionalism is another factor. It’s no secret that the CM and PCC president Sukhwinder Sukhu do not see eye to eye. Virbhadra met Rahul recently seeking Sukhu’s removal. Apparently after being told that they must work together, Virbhadra has called a temporary truce, but the rift has hobbled the Congress’s poll preparations.
The BJP, for its part, has to contend with resentment in the traders’ community — its main vote-bank — especially against GST.
Congress MLA and Chief Parliamentary Secretary Rajesh Dharmani says the party’s USP would be the “massive development” work undertaken. “The NDA government has failed on several promises — jobs, curbing black money and price rise, and the new problem, GST. The BJP will find this hard to explain.”
Himachal BJP president Satpal Satti highlights the largesse the state has received in the last three years – national highways, an AIIMS, an IIM, medical colleges, a substantial hike in the Finance Commission award, and restoration of special category status.
“But the state government could not utilise the funds or prepare detailed project reports,” Satti says. “Why should people elect such a non-performing, corrupt government that patronises the mafia raj? People will elect a government that works in tandem with the Centre and restore the pace of development. The chief minister has spent his five years framing false cases against BJP leaders and had no time for development due to his own CBI, ED and Income Tax cases.