“Riwaaz badal raha hai (The tradition is about to change)”. That’s the popular buzz in the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) circles in Himachal, where power has alternated between Congress and BJP for the last three decades. Banking on the Midas touch of Prime Minister Narendra Modi, the ruling party has been urging voters to break this routine and return it to power for a second consecutive term in the assembly elections on November 12.
While party leaders in Delhi are upbeat, long-time observers of the state’s politics are more cautious. “It’s early days. Congress is still in the game, and there is anger among the people on governance issues. Also, the entry of newcomer AAP could influence the results in a state where victory margins tend to be slim,’’ said a veteran journalist.
One of the revolts took place in CM Jairam Thakur’s home district of Mandi, where Praveen Sharma, the party’s media co-incharge announced he will contest as an independent from Mandi Sadar.
BJP’s decision to field two Congress turncoats has also riled local leaders. In Nalagarh, KL Thakur, former BJP MLA, filed his nomination as an independent on Thursday when the party gave the ticket to sitting Congress MLA Lakhwinder Singh Rana, who has recently switched sides. Regardless of the warning by the party, he drew a large crowd in his rally, themed, “Mera kasoor kya hai (What’s my fault?).” In Dharamshala too, around 200 supporters of Vishal Naihariya, the sitting BJP MLA, resigned in protest against the ticket to Congress turncoat Rakesh Chaudhary.
Infighting within political families is also coming to bite the BJP. Vandana Guleria, daughter of Jal Shakti minister Mahender Singh Thakur, quit her post in the party’s Mahila Morcha in a huff when her younger brother Rajat Thakur was allotted the ticket. Hiteshwar Singh, a Kullu royal, is also threatening to contest as an independent from Banjar, after his father, former BJP state president Maheshwar Singh, was given the ticket from Kullu (Sadar) but he was denied, under BJP’s “one family, one ticket” rule.
But party leaders say they are confident of placating them all, with central leaders such as J P Nadda expected to step in.
The party also faces charges of poor governance. The CMO, for instance, has seen six chief secretaries in the last five years. A number of initiatives taken by the government did not stand scrutiny of the courts, the most recent being the Ari Nagar Panchayat notification, which was struck down by the Himachal high court. The draft Shimla Development Plan 2041 was also stayed by the National Green Tribunal. Such missteps have given rise to the perception of a “soft” CM being buffeted around by wily supporters.
This may explain why BJP is banking on the Modi magic and central schemes in these polls.
Those who see an edge for the BJP, cite the poor state of the Congress at the Centre, and BJP’s nationalist policies. Prof. Harish Thakur, a political scientist at Himachal Pradesh University, says, “Many of the central schemes have benefited the locals. Ayushman Bharat, for instance, has proved to be a godsend for many. Also, people are fond of Modi. His nationalist approach resonates in a state where a large number of youngsters join the armed forces.’’
BJP has sought to fight anti-incumbency by denying tickets to 11 sitting legislators. It also successfully scotched all speculations about former chief minister Prem Kumar Dhumal being in the fray for the top post by denying him a ticket. Although some of his loyalists were accommodated in the second list, the party high command has made it clear that it is curtains for the Dhumal era.
The Congress, on the other hand, is facing a severe crisis of leadership, as it fights its first assembly election without Virbhadra Singh, the six-time CM of the hill state who passed away in July 2021. “Virbhadra had a mass following. It was believed that he had at least 4,000 votes in every constituency,” says Prof Kamal, a retired HPU professor.
Although the party has appointed his widow Pratibha Singh, many see her as part of the problem and not the solution, even though she won the Mandi parliamentary seat in the October 2021 bypolls.
The party had secured only 21 seats, half of BJP’s 44, in the 68-member state Assembly in 2017. This number went down to 19 this year when two of its MLAs defected to BJP.
Infighting continues to roil Congress, and has kept it from making the most of the ambitious manifesto it released in September, with 10 poll guarantees that include free power, a monthly allowance of Rs 1,500 to women in the age group of 18 to 60 years, return to the old pension system and purchase of cow dung for Rs 2 per kg.
The grand old party is banking on anti-incumbency, anger against price rise and misgovernance to make a comeback. CM Jairam Thakur had blamed price rise for the Congress’s sweep in the October 2021 bypolls when it won the Mandi Lok Sabha seat and three Assembly seats of Fatehpur, Arki and Jubbal Kotkhai.
Earlier in the summer, the state seemed poised for its first three-cornered contest, as fresh after its thumping victory in the neighbouring Punjab, Aam Aadmi Party cast its net on Himachal. Delhi Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal and his deputy, Manish Sisodia, toured the state in the summer with a slew of guarantees, telling the people they would do a repeat of Punjab here as well. But their state unit has been in a shambles, with senior party leaders who had been associated with it since 2017, joining either Congress or BJP. While state unit chief Anup Kesri joined the saffron party, Nikka Singh Patial, one of the party’s founding members in the state, switched to Congress.
Of late, the party has been focusing on Gujarat. It’s only last week that it appointed Harjot Singh Bains, the youngest minister in the Punjab Cabinet, as it’s state poll in-charge. The party list has some interesting names, but whether they will be able to make a dent remains to be seen. AAP, however, claims that many of its candidates will spring a surprise.
Buoyed by its win on the Theog seat in 2017, the CPI(M) has also fielded 11 candidates, one against the CM, in Seraj.
Political observers say the two parties could queer the pitch for the two traditional rivals. The picture will become clearer after October 28, the last date for withdrawal of nominations.
Then, it will be over to the voter who is keeping their cards close to the chest.