Kangra, the largest valley in Himachal Pradesh, has 13.2 lakh voters. Its “Smart City” Dharamshala is known the world over as the summer residence of Tibetan spiritual and political leader Dalai Lama. With 15 seats in the 68-member Assembly, Kangra often ends up deciding the state’s political future. No wonder then, that all political parties in the fray for the forthcoming Assembly polls are slugging it out to win big in the district.
Known as the state’s “weathervane” in political circles, the mood of voters is said to swing in favour of the winning party, providing a dip test for political analysts. The district is also known for its Japanese cherry trees that blossom in winters and grow in abundance in the wild.
These will be in full bloom when Kangra goes to vote on November 12. It remains to be seen whether the cherry trees in bloom enable saffron to blossom in the state yet again, or if it signifies change, with most constituencies seeing a direct contest between Congress and BJP candidates.
In 2017, the incumbent BJP had won 11 out of 15 seats in the district, with three going to the Congress and one to an Independent. In 2012, the Congress had won 10, and gone on to form the government.
As elections draw near, infighting among various BJP camps has been surfacing, but over the past five years, the main and recurring allegation against the government has been illegal sand and stone mining in the state’s numerous rivulets. It was cited as one of the reasons behind the collapse of a 90-year-old bridge on Chakki rivulet along the Punjab and Himachal border in August this year.
Another issue, on which the Congress is taking the BJP to task, is the delay in the construction of a campus for the Central University of Himachal Pradesh (CUHP) at Dharamshala, which was announced over a decade ago and has been up and running from local college buildings since then. Incidentally, this was also a point of the BJP’s criticism of the previous Congress government led by Virbhadra Singh.
Last year, land was transferred from Dharamshala to Dehra—both under Kangra district—for the construction of the campus, but till date, work hasn’t begun. Meanwhile, locals, teachers and students alike are unhappy with the campus being shifted from Dharamshala to Dehra. The delay in completion of construction works on national highways is also another sticking point among voters.
Change vs Rinse & Repeat
Four BJP MLAs from this district have enjoyed cabinet portfolios in Jai Ram Thakur’s government, including Rakesh Pathania (Nurpur), Sarveen Chaudhary (Shahpur), Bikram Singh Thakur (Jaswan Pragpur) and Vipin Singh Parmar (Sullah). Parmar was the health minister from December 2017 to February 2020. He later became the Vidhan Sabha speaker.
With a tagline of “Riwaaz Badalna Hai (Time to Change the Habit)” for its poll campaign under its “Mission Repeat”, the BJP is again eyeing maximum returns from the district. It has already got several leaders from the Congress and the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP). It inducted AAP’s state vice-president Rakesh Chaudhary and nominated him from Dharamshala, and also poached the Congress’s acting Kangra district president, Pawan Kajal, nominating him as its candidate from the Kangra Assembly segment. The BJP’s biggest worry is infighting in five seats—Dharamshala, Kangra, Dehra, Indora and Fatehpur.
Banking on Loyalty
The Congress is banking on its old warhorses. A majority of its candidates are from traditional Congress families in the district. Former minister Sudhir Sharma, its candidate from Dharamshala, is the son of former Congress minister Sant Ram. Ajay Mahajan, its candidate from Nurpur, is the son of former minister Sat Mahajan. Bhawani Singh Pathania, the nominee from Fatehpur, is the son of deceased former minister Sujan Singh Pathania, while RS Bali, the nominee from Nagrota, is the son of another former minister GS Bali, now deceased.
Meanwhile, Ashish Butail, the Congress nominee from Palampur, is the son of former state Assembly speaker B B L Butail. A study of poll results reveals that over the decades, voters have been giving chances to a handful of candidates from the BJP and the Congress, with the only significant trend being their relocation to different constituencies. But with AAP in fray, voters may at last have more choices this year.
A look at all 15 constituencies in the district:
Sitting MLA: Rakesh Pathania (BJP, Minister of Forest, Sports and Youth Affairs)
BJP: Ranveer Singh Nikku
INC: Ajay Mahajan
AAP: Manisha Kumari
To quell infighting, cabinet minister Rakesh Pathana, who is the sitting MLA from Nurpur, was shifted to Fatehpur, while the former Nurpur block president, Ranbir Singh Nikka—who had levelled allegations of tree felling against Pathania without naming the forest minister, and has been cribbing of being ignored since 2017—given the Nurpur ticket. Interestingly, in 2017, Pathania had contested on the promise of making Nurpur a district, but did nothing to follow up since then.
Sitting MLA: Reeta Dhiman (BJP)
BJP: Reeta Dhiman
INC: Malendar Rajan
AAP: Jagdish Bagga
Rebellion was reported from Indora too, where former MLA Manohar Dhiman who had won as an independent in 2012 and in 2017 had joined BJP filed his nomination as an Independent after he was denied ticket ..Sitting MLA Rita Dhiman was given ticket yet again. The constituency, a centre of controversy over allegations and counter-allegations between Muslim Gujjar tribes and Vishva Hindu Parishad (VHP) members, with the former, who are STs and form about 5 per cent of the state’s total voters, alleging that their crops had been burnt by miscreants, while the latter alleging that the Gujjars had encroached upon grasslands.
Sitting MLA: Bhawani Singh Pathania (INC)
BJP: Rakesh Pathania
INC: Bhawani Singh Pathania
AAP: Dr Rajan Sushant
Independent: Kirpal Singh Parmar (ex-BJP Rajya Sabha MP)
With a four-cornered contest of heavyweights this year, Fatehpur is being considered a hot seat. Sujan Singh had won the seat in 2017. After his death on February 13, 2021, his son Bhawani Singh won the bypoll the same year on a Congress ticket. The AAP candidate, Dr Rajan Sushant, is a five-time BJP MLA and a former BJP MP, though, when he had contested as an independent in the 2021 bypoll, he had managed only 12,927 votes. Before the 2021 bypoll, he had declared that he wouldn’t accept his pension as a former MLA and MP, till the old pension scheme was implemented. In the past, he had alleged corruption by Pathania as forest minister in the recruitment of forest guards, against which, Pathania had filed a defamation suit. BJP’s pitch is further queered by the rebellion of Kirpal Singh Parmar,, a former Rajya Sabha member who has filed his nomination as an Independent.
Sitting MLA: Arjun Singh (BJP)
BJP: Sanjay Guleria
INC: Chander Kumar
AAP: Capt Baldev Raj
There was widespread resentment among supporters of Arjun Singh, when the sitting MLA was denied the ticket this time. A faction of local BJP members had been openly supporting Sanjay Guleria’s candidature, with a former minister even stating in August that Arjun Singh was unfit to remain an MLA. Although Arjun hasn’t filed his nomination as an independent in anger, a spillover of the infighting on the BJP’s hopes can’t be ruled out, as Arjun’s supporters are claiming he has fulfilled all the promises he had made five years ago.
Sitting MLA: Hoshyar Singh (Independent)
BJP: Ramesh Dhawala
Congress: Dr. Rajesh Sharma
AAP: Col. Manish Dhiman
Independent: Hoshyar Singh (sitting MLA)
The 2017 Assembly poll result for Dehra had surprised everyone, when an independent candidate had won election. But later, Hoshyar Singh had extended external support to the BJP government, and was inducted into the party in June this year, despite stiff opposition from local party leaders. As a result, BJP was forced to relocate Jawalamukhi MLA Ramesh Dhwala to Dehra, with former MLA Ravinder Ravi given the Jawalamukhi seat. Left without a party ticket, Hoshyar Singh quit BJP and filed his nomination as an Independent once again.
In 2017, Hoshyar had gone bald during the poll campaign, promising to take up the issue of rehabilitation of around 10,000 families who gave up their lands for the Bhakra-Beas Management Board project in 1964, and were displaced. In this year’s four-cornered contest, his opponents are saying he has failed to do anything significant in this direction in his five years.
Sitting MLA: Bikram Singh Thakur (Industry minister)
BJP: Bikram Singh Thakur
INC: Surinder Singh Mankotia
AAP: Sahil Chauhan
Cabinet minister Bikram Singh Thakur was in the news recently, after he appeared live in one of the virtual satsangs of Dera Sacha Sauda-head Gurmeet Ram Rahim, seeking the latter’s blessings. He even praised the rape convict religious leader who is out on parole, saying the Dera was doing great work. The Opposition has latched on to this to lambast him for seeking to influence the assembly polls, as the Dera is known to have followers in some pockets of the state.
Sitting MLA: Ramesh Chand Dhawla
BJP: Ravinder Singh Ravi
INC: Sanjay Rattan
AAP: Hoshyar Singh
Jawalamukhi’s sitting MLA has been sent to contest from Dehra, while a former Dehra MLA Ravinder Ravi is now the BJP candidate from Jawalamukhi. Ravi was elected as BJP MLA from Dehra in 2012, but was defeated by the Independent, Hoshyar Singh, in 2017. While Dhawla, a senior BJP leader, had won Jawalamukhi in 2007 and 2017, sources revealed seat swapping was seen as an optimal solution as both Dhwala and Ravi have been fighting incessantly. Their acrimony peaked when an anonymous letter levelling corruption charges against Ravi went viral on social media, but police failed to establish anything.
Sitting MLA: Ravindra Dhiman (BJP)
BJP: Ravindra Dhiman
INC: Yadwinder Goma
AAP: Santosh Kumar
Over the years, Jaisinghpur had regularly witnessed a straight contest between Dhiman and Goma. Goma won in 2012, but lost to Dhiman in 2017. As they face off for the third consecutive time, though, AAP’s Santosh Kumar hopes to disrupt this. “Time will tell whether the seat will see a triangular contest or not. As of now, AAP is new in the area,” said a Punjab BJP leader campaigning in the area. There is a fourth contender in the fray—Sushil Kaul, an Independent—who had lived in the USA for about 15 years, and has been working in the area for over 4 years. It has been learnt that he was a Congress ticket aspirant but was denied ticket.
Sitting MLA: Vipin Singh Parmar (Speaker, Himachal Pradesh Vidhan Sabha)
BJP: Vipin Singh Parmar
INC: Jagdish Sapehia
AAP: Ravinder Singh Ravi
Independent: Jagjiwan Paul (former Congress MLA)
Congress candidate Jagdish Singh Sapehia is facing rebellion within the ranks, with former party MLA Jagjiwan Paul contesting as an Independent. Paul is a two-time Congress MLA from Sullah, who had lost to BJP’s Parmar in 2017. An OBC leader, he claims to have strong support among the OBC and SC communities.
Sitting MLA: Arun Kumar Mehra (BJP)
BJP: Arun Kumar Mehra
INC: Raghbir Singh Bali
AAP: Umakant Dogra
Once a member of former Congress MLA Gurmukh Singh Bali’s team, Mehra switched to BJP a few years ago and promptly defeated Bali in 2017. A former Congress minister, Gurmukh Singh died on October 30, 2021 at the age of 67. So this time, Congress gave the ticket to his son, Raghbir Singh Bali, who was a secretery of the All India Congress the age of 67.
Sitting MLA: Pawan Kumar Kajal (INC)
BJP: Pawan Kumar Kajal
INC: Surendra Kumar Kaku
AAP: Raj Kumar Jaswal
In the Kangra Assembly seat, where BJP has brought in Pawan Kajal, rebelling BJP zila parishad member Kulbhash Chaudhary has filed his nomination as an Independent.
Pawan Kumar Kajal gave a big jolt to Congress when he joined BJP in August this year, along with the Nalagarh Congress MLA. Only in April this year, Kajal had been appointed the party’s state working committee president, an elevation resented by a faction within the party. For Kajal, though, it was a Ghar Wapsi, as he was in the BJP before 2012. In 2012, he had contested as an Independent after BJP denied him a ticket, and won as well. Later on, he became an associate member in Virbhadra Singh’s Congress government, and in 2017, contested on a Congress ticket, winning for the second consecutive time.
Meanwhile, the Congress candidate, Kaku, had joined the BJP ahead of the 2019 Lok Sabha polls, but returned to Congress in September this year, soon after Kajal switched over to the BJP. Kaku had won his only election in 2003 on a Congress ticket, losing in 2007 and 2012.
Sitting MLA: Sarveen Chaudhary (Social justice and empowerment minister)
BJP: Sarveen Chaudhary
INC: Kewal Singh Pathania
AAP Abhishek Thakur
Sarveen Chaudhary won her first election from Shahpur in 1998. Renowned as a folk dancer during her college days at Panjab University, Chandigarh, the four-time MLA then went on to win consecutively from the same seat in 2007, 2012 and 2017. She was the minister for social justice and empowerment from 2008-2013. In the Jai Ram Thakur government, she was first given charge of the urban development portfolio in November 2017, before being made minister of social justice and empowerment during the cabinet reshuffle of August 2020.
Soon after the reshuffle, though, she got embroiled in a controversy that has refused to leave her side since then. Vijay Singh Mankotia of the Congress alleged dubious land deals justified by Chaudhary as urban development minister. She was called over to New Delhi to explain herself, while the state vigilance bureau sought permission from the government to initiate an inquiry into the case. She has managed to cling to her post, and even get herself nominated as a candidate for the 5th time, even though Opposition demands for her resignation have been persistent.
Sitting MLA: Vishal Nehria (BJP, won in the 2019 bypoll)
BJP: Rakesh Chaudhary
INC: Sudhir Sharma
AAP: Kulwant Rana
Independent: Vishal Nehria (BJP rebel)
In Dharamshala, the winter capital of Himachal Pradesh, BJP’s Kishan Kapoor had won in 2017, but after he joined the Lok Sabha as the Kangra MP in 2019, Vishal Nehria won for the party in the 2019 bypoll, in which, the current candidate Rakesh Chaudhary, then a BJP rebel, had lost as an Independent by a margin of about 6,700 votes. This time, too, infighting is rife, what with the entire BJP block unit resigning as office-bearers, while two local leaders—Dharamshala block president Anil Chaudhary and district ST Morcha president Vipin Nehria—have filed their nomination papers as Independents. With former rebel Rakesh Chaudhary favoured by the BJP this time, though sitting MLA Vishal Nehria didn’t file nomination papers, however a cold war is on.
Sitting MLA: Ashish Butail (Congress)
BJP: Trilok Kapoor
INC: Ashish Butail
AAP: Sanjay Bhardwaj
In 2017, Ashish Butail had defeated BJP heavyweight Indu Goswami, despite a BJP wave in the state, with infighting a major reason for BJP’s defeat according to sources who claimed Goswami had then been termed a “parachute” candidate. Goswami went to the Rajya Sabha thereafter. Though Butail is the sitting MLA, there appears to be an anti-incumbency wave against the state BJP across the district that could favour the Congress candidate. Butail comes from a political family, with his father, Brij Bihari Lal Butail, a five-time MLA who was the Vidhan Sabha speaker between 2012 and 2017. Brij Bihari Lal retired from politics in 2017 after his term as speaker ended, paving the way for his son to inherit the constituency.
Trilok Kapoor, the BJP candidate, was the party’s state general secretary.
Sitting MLA: Mulk Raj Premi (BJP)
BJP: Mulk Raj Premi
INC: Kishori Lal
AAP: Pramod Chand
Mulk Raj will be facing old rival Kishori Lal of the Congress, whom he had defeated in 2017, when Kishori Lal was the sitting Congress MLA from this reserved seat. This time, though, AAP has emerged as a third player.