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Behind Congress’s Himachal comeback: OPS, state issues, campaign narrative, united fight

Congress identified early issues which could hurt BJP in Himachal polls, which included Old Pension Scheme, unemployment, price rise and Agniveer

Congress workers celebrates the party's victory in Himachal Pradesh Assembly elections, in Kullu, Thursday, Dec. 8, 2022. (PTI Photo)

The Congress party, which suffered its worst-ever debacle in the Gujarat elections, managed to put its act together for the Himachal Pradesh Assembly polls and wrested the hill state from the BJP.

Although the Himachal polls was a close contest between the two contenders, in the end the challenger Congress got the better of the incumbent BJP decisively, bagging 40 of the total 68 seats as against the BJP’s 25.

So what worked for the Congress in the Himachal elections that did not in the Gujarat fray.

Firstly, the party started gearing up for the Himachal polls several months in advance. Despite being plagued by factionalism and infighting, the party’s state unit made efforts to put its house in order with different faction leaders coming together to put up a united face against the BJP.

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The Congress also started planning for the list of its candidates well in advance. For four months, the All India Congress Committee (AICC) in-charge of Himachal Rajiv Shukla and his team comprising of AICC secretary Tejinder Singh Bittu and AICC joint secretary Gokul Butail camped in the state. They visited constituencies to garner feedback on various prospective candidates following which an independent team provided surveys down to the booth level.

The Congress weathered the storm of ticket distribution effectively. A key factor behind the BJP’s defeat was the rebellion that erupted within the saffron party following its announcement of election candidates. In the course of its candidates selection exercise, the BJP cancelled the tickets of 11 sitting MLAs and fielded many new faces, ruffling several feathers in its ranks. A number of the ruling party’s rebels fought the polls as Independent candidates, damaging its prospects.

In contrast, the Congress managed to keep such internal rebellions largely under check. Although the party also faced its rebel candidates in some seats, its ticket distribution process was a smooth exercise that turned to be crucial in the final analysis. Shukla himself pacified disgruntled leaders at the grassroots level in areas from where the threats of rebellion arose.

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The Himachal Congress also worked out an effective campaign strategy and narrative, keeping its focus on local and state issues.

The Congress identified early the issues which could hurt the BJP in the state – among them the demand for restoration of the Old Pension Scheme (OPS), unemployment, price rise and perceived public resentment against the Agniveer recruitment scheme. The party prepared a strategy regarding its manifesto and poll promises. It believed that the OPS announcement beforehand would set a pace.

AICC general secretary Priyanka Gandhi Vadra worked in tandem with Chhattisgarh Chief Minister Bhupesh Baghel for the Himachal campaign. Priyanka addressed several rallies even as Baghel also spent time in managing the campaign in the state. Vinod Verma, Baghel’s political advisor, worked to gauge policies that might work for the party.

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The Congress’s social media management, right from targeting the Jai Ram Thakur-led BJP dispensation to pitching for prominent Congress faces, generated a buzz around the party’s campaign in the run-up to the polls. With Priyanka being the only national star campaigner on the trail, the party managed to project state leaders as essential to its electioneering.

Sticking to bread-and-butter issues amid the perceived anti-incumbency factor in a bid to return to power in Himachal, the party was able to build a narrative around the poll pledges of providing one lakh jobs, financial assistance of Rs 1,500 to every woman in the age group of 18-60 years, and the restoration of the OPS. In a state where employment opportunities stem primarily from government services, these promises seemed to have resonated among the voters.

First published on: 09-12-2022 at 15:27 IST
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