POSTERS of Hindi films and action heroes dot Una in Himachal Pradesh. There is Mogambo from Mr India grinning down at you in that timeless combination of glee and menace from the back of a roadways bus. Action hero Shaktimaan towers from another billboard. The images may be old but the message is new. Mogambo is happy because people have turned up in large numbers in Una to vote. And well, if Shaktimaan was your childhood hero, you are old enough to vote. As Una goes to the polls on May 19, the administration has come out with out-of-the-box ideas to get voters to the polling booths. “Una had a voter turnout of 71% in the 2014 elections, the highest in Himachal,” says Rakesh Kumar Prajapati, deputy commissioner-cum-district election officer of Una. “We want to ensure it betters even that.”
With first-time voters specially being encouraged, students say they are looking forward to cast their first vote. Within Una’s government college campus, jobs and national security are what they discuss when they talk about politics. “Modiji is a strong leader. Hasn’t he taken badlaa (revenge) for Pulwama? Attacks used to happen before but no one did anything. Manmohan Singhji toh baithe hi rahe,” says Shalu, a sophomore in Vocational Studies. The circle grows bigger. Most nod in agreement. But the availability of jobs remains a niggling concern that even the drumbeat of military might can’t quite drown. “This vocational degree started two years ago and we are really excited to be studying here but we get demoralised sometimes when we see so many young people, our seniors who have degrees but no jobs,” says another as a group of boys joins the conversation. “That may be true,” cuts in another, “but this government is working for development. It has taken strong steps against terrorism and I think that’s very important.”
The February 14 attack in Pulwama and the subsequent airstrike on Balakot in Pakistan find a deep resonance in this town nestled in the foothills of the Himalayas in Himachal. The sentiment is not really surprising. One in every few houses here has someone working for or retired from the armed forces. A petrol-pump in the centre of town stands in the name of local boy Capt Amol Kalia, who was killed in the 1999 Kargil War. Vikram Batra, another Kargil hero, remembered famously for his “Yeh dil maange more” cry after a battle victory, belongs to Himachal’s Palampur.
Una is part of the Hamirpur constituency represented by Anurag Thakur in the Lok Sabha. Thakur, son of veteran BJP leader and former state chief minister Prem Kumar Dhumal, won the seat first in 2009 and is seeking re-election for the third time. Before him, the BJP’s Suresh Chandel had held it for two terms. BJP state chief Satpal Satti, whom the EC issued a notice recently over his derogatory remarks against Congress president Rahul Gandhi, too belongs to Una, as does the state’s leader of Opposition in the Assembly, the Congress’s Mukesh Agnihotri, making it an electoral crucible in the hill state.
At the Sainik canteen in the bustling market in the centre of town, ex-armyman Chanan Singh, says, “Of course, development is important, but the nation comes first. Hindustan hai toh sab kuchch hai.”
Just a few kilometres away stands the Himachal Pradesh Academy for Defence Services, run by a local organisation, which trains students wanting to join the forces. Lt Col Kuldip Singh (retd), one of the directors at the academy, says, “As compared to other states, Himachal is relatively prosperous. Of course, unemployment is a concern but lots of the pressing issues of other states are not here.”
The main issue, agrees Amit Vashisht, who teaches at the academy, remains employment. “This is what concerns the young, who are very aware these days because of social media. They constantly compare what they have and what others do. They all know which party is offering what but these days it’s difficult to tell who will vote for whom. Despite all the noise, this time, it’s a silent vote,” he says.
In a village bordering Punjab, Kashmir Singh, whose age in the electoral rolls puts him at 106, remembers the past and talks of the future. He remembers voting for Prime Minister Nehru and says, “Iss barr Congress ke munde ko chance milna chahiye (Congress’s son Rahul Gandhi should get a chance)”.
On May 19, Una will decide who to give that chance to.