It was a battle between tradition and ambition. Traditionally, Himachal Pradesh has never repeated a government in power in the last 37 years. The pragmatic Himachali voter has always thought it best not to let any party get too comfortable in the seat. Even in the run-up to these elections, this sentiment was evident on the ground – “Inhein dekh liya, ab Congress ko chance dete hain (We have seen them, now let’s see the others”). But this time, equally strong was the BJP’s call for changing the “riwaaz (tradition)”.
The winds of change were evident since the October 2021 bypolls when the Congress won all the four seats. But many thought the BJP had a real chance, given that the Congress had lost its mascot, six-time chief minister Virbhadra Singh in 2021, and that it was in shambles at the Centre. The BJP also had a trump card in Prime Minister Narendra Modi, whose popularity seemed to cut across party lines in the state.
The party then proceeded to give the election its all, with BJP president J P Nadda making it a matter of his personal prestige, Union ministers Amit Shah, Rajnath Singh and Smriti Irani coming to campaign, and Uttar Pradesh CM Yogi Adityanath addressing a series of rallies, all reinforcing the message of “double engine sarkaar”. The BJP also tried to nip anti-incumbency by dropping 11 of its 44 MLAs.
What the party did not account for was the full-scale rebellion that ensued. Many of the rebels could not be pacified and this is believed to have eventually cost the party at least 10-odd seats – a crucial difference that may have caused it power. Three of their rebels, who were clearly front-runners right from the beginning, managed to win their seats.
The Congress, which repeated all its 19 sitting legislators – two of the 21 who won in 2017 had switched to the BJP – faced little rebellion despite its profusion of chief ministerial candidates. However, the insistence on propitiating old warhorses may have cost it at least three seats. Both Asha Kumari and Kaul Singh Thakur lost, as did Thakur’s daughter Champa Thakur, who was fielded from Mandi Sadar in violation of the party’s one family, one seat rule.
Political observers say the BJP’s bid to keep out former CM Prem Kumar Dhumal to size may have also earned it some ill-will. While Dhumal had lost last time, many thought the party had wronged him by deliberately fielding him from a weak seat then. This was a charge that Congress leaders like Sukhwinder Sukhu often repeated at their rallies.
The perceived lack of governance by the Jai Ram Thakur government also hurt the BJP. Though Thakur was considered a clean politican, there was growing perception that the state lacked effective governance. The state saw chief secretaries being changed every few months. The police recruitment scandal also dented the government’s image, as did decisions such as the plan to revamp Shimla, which had to be rolled back following judicial scrutiny.
The anger over the New Pension Scheme also cost the BJP dearly, for government employees at 2-lakh plus form a formidable vote bank in the state have been seeking its revocation. Prof Ramesh Chauhan, a political scientist, says the government employees have the power of swaying at least 5% of the voters. The Congress not only promised to re-introduce the Old Pension Scheme, but also showcased the fact that its Chhattisgarh CM Bhupesh Baghel had already delivered the same in his state.
The other factors that went against the BJP were the Agniveer scheme for recruitment in the Army, coinciding with rising unemployment in the wake of the pandemic, and the protests by apple farmers over falling profits.
Price rise, which CM Thakur had blamed for the BJP’s defeat in the bypolls, again returned to bite the party as women, who form a little less than half of the electorate in the state, openly spoke against the spiralling cost of LPG. It also tempered the double engine government claim of the BJP, with voters wondering whether it was wise to centralise all decisions.
On the ground, Congress leaders worked hard to revive old connections with voters, neutralising the effect of the BJP’s star-studded, muscular campaign to a large extent. Some believe even the multiplicity of CM contenders helped, with the party pointing out that while the BJP had only CM Thakur, it had a phalanx of local stars such as Sukhwinder Sukhu in Hamirpur, Mukesh Agnihotri in Una, and Himachal Congress president Pratibha Singh in Shimla.
Much before elections, the Congress dealt a blow to the BJP’s Hindutva agenda, with a slew of guarantees borrowed from AAP and the saffron party. These included 300 units of free power a la AAP, and the promise to buy cow dung and urine.
The Congress further announced a monthly allowance of Rs 1,500 to women in the age group of 18 to 60 years, upping the Rs 1,000 promised by visiting Delhi Deputy CM Manish Sisodia the same day.
In the end, it was the decision of Himachal voters to stand by their time-tested political culture of voting out the incumbent that prevailed. As a voter pointed out, “We are not dictated by parties, we have a mind of our own.’’