Attribute it to a mishmash of traditional anti-incumbency and dissidence within the ruling BJP, or better ground management, the Congress on Thursday snatched back the hill state of Himachal Pradesh from the saffron party with a wafer-thin majority, securing 36 seats in the 68-strong Vidhan Sabha.
Virbhadra flashes the victory sign (L) and incumbent chief minister Prem Kumar Dhumal (R) in a dejected mood after Congress won the HP assembly elections on Thursday. HT Photo
Though the Congress barely managed to cross the simple majority mark of 35 it would have heaved a sigh of relief. As for the BJP, which won six seats, it not only failed to capitalise on the nationwide anti-Congress sentiment, but even its seemingly appealing populist offerings - like electric induction cookers as an alternative to non-subsidised LPG - failed to click. An opportunity lost?
The BJP suffered major reverses in Kangra district, where it could win only three of 15 seats. Adding insult to injury, two BJP rebels - Pawan Kajal (Kangra) and Mohan Dhiman (Indora) -- who contested as independents following denial of party ticket, won. In 2007, the BJP had won nine seats in the district. The Congress, thus, improved its tally here, from five in 2007 to 10 this time.
In all, five independents won, four were BJP rebels. Another seat went to Maheshwar Singh, a former BJP MP who had broken away to form the Himachal Lokhit Party (HLP).
While both chief minister Prem Kumar Dhumal and his intra-party rival Shanta Kumar were non-committal on spelling out the reasons for the BJP's defeat, insiders blamed flawed selections of nominees. "In a bid to appease both Dhumal and Shanta Kumar, the leadership probably erred while distributing tickets. This ended up accentuating the infighting," commented an observer on an afternoon TV show in Shimla.
Dhumal, though, can still hold his head high on this count, as most of the candidates backed by him won -- Ravinder Ravi (Dehra), Rajeev Bindal (Nahan), Gulab Singh (Joginder Nagar), Vikram Thakur (Jaswan-Paragpur), ID Dhiman (Bhoranj) and Satpal Singh Satti (Una).
The same cannot be said about Shanta Kumar, whose handpicked candidates only flattered to deceive -- Ramesh Dhawala (Jawalamukhi), Kishan Kapoor (Dharamsala), Vipin Parmar (Sullah) and Ranvir Singh Nikka (Nurpur) lost, and badly.
The Dhumal camp, too, had some losers - his staunch loyalists like Arjan Singh (Jawali), Baldev Thakur (Fatehpur), Balbir Singh (Chintpurni), Sukh Ram (Paonta Sahib), Narinder Bragta (Jubbal Kotkhai) and Baldev Sharma (Barsar) came a cropper.
The performance of the Congress can be described as mediocre, at best. The party that may have done well in Kangra district and improved its showing in Shimla, Mandi, Kinnaur and Lahaul-Spiti; but it failed to break into BJP citadels in Hamirpur and Bilaspur districts.
The Congress would also need to introspect its showing in Sirmour where it registered a solitary win in Renuka this time, as compared to three seats in 2007.
The Congress, as some observers put it, benefited from the squabbling in the BJP, and then was helped on its way to victory by anti-incumbency. Five-time former chief minister Virbhadra Singh, who is getting all the applause for the win, has reasons to feel concerned. Several of his loyalists lost -- former speaker Gangu Ram (Pacchad), former ministers Rangila Ram Rao (Sarkaghat) and Ram Lal (Naina Devi), All India Mahila Congress chief Anita Verma (Sujanpur), Bhattiyat MLA Kuldeep Pathania, Chopal MLA Subash Manglait and Surinder Kaku (Kangra).