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Himachal to vote on Nov 9 in test of PM Modi’s popularity

Election Commission announces Gujarat vote to be held before December 18 to enable simultaneous counting.

HimachalPradeshElection2017 Updated: Oct 12, 2017 22:52 IST
Smriti Kak Ramachandran
The election Commission press conference in New Delhi on Thursday.
The election Commission press conference in New Delhi on Thursday.(ANI Twitter)

Elections to pick a new legislative assembly for Himachal Pradesh will be held on November 9, the Election Commission announced on Thursday. Results will be declared on December 18.

Chief election commissioner AK Joti said assembly polls in Gujarat will be held before December 18 but he did not announce the dates.

Results for both the states are likely to be declared on the same date.

The polls are seen as a barometer of support for Prime Minister Narendra Modi at a time when a sputtering economy has handed the opposition Congress party a possible opening to regain political ground.

In particular, the contest in Gujarat, Modi’s home state where the BJP has been in power for 22 years, will be keenly watched for signs of voter reaction to some of his radical economic policies that made doing business far more complicated, especially for small and medium companies.

However, the BJP will take heart from the fact that Modi’s public approval remains as high as ever, evident from the party’s stunning victory in the bellwether state of Uttar Pradesh early this year.

The Congress trained its guns on the BJP government, accusing it of “putting pressure” on the poll panel to defer announcement of election dates in Gujarat to “suit” its political ends. The party said implementation of the code of conduct has been deferred to allow Modi’s rally in the state.

Joti said the commission had received a representation from Gujarat seeking more time before the model code of conduct is enforced, which is from the date of announcement of elections till the results are announced. Governments are barred from making any announcements that can impact election outcome.

Joti quoted the state administration as saying it was in the process of completing relief and rehabilitation works in the aftermath of July’s floods that killed more than 200 people and necessitated relocation of 45 villages.

5 key poll issues in Himachal Pradesh
Law and order
In videos, the BJP has alleged crime is rising after the gangrape-murder of a Class 10 student and the death of a forest guard this year, accusing the Himachal government of sheltering culprits. The Congress party-led state goverment has also been facing flak for the rising drug menace, deforestation and illegal mining.
Economy and employment
The government claims the industrial sector’s share in the state economy has risen although agriculture sector has declined from 10.4% in 2014-15 to 9.4% in 2015-16. Himachal’s debt is on the rise and the BJP has accused the government of availing loans without generating more revenue. According to the state government, nearly 70,000 people have been employed in public sector jobs.
Agriculture
Farmers in Himachal, a major producer of apple, have been demanding a policy to protect their interests as they don’t get sufficient price for their crops. Both the Congress and BJP have not fulfilled their promises of increasing import duty on apple to help domestic farmers. Delay in susbsidies is another contentious issue, with farmers waiting for relief since their subsidy claims of 2013-14.
Development and infrastructure
The Congress and BJP have pitted their achievements and blamed each other of not undertaking adequate development. The Centre has said Congress’ expediture on roads, educational institutions and health facilities has been wasteful. The BJP, which had announced construction of 61 national highways, also claimed state ministers did not prepare detailed plans for the projects.
Demonetisation and GST
Like the rest of the country, demonetisation and GST are major poll issues in Himachal Pradesh. The scrapping of high denomination notes in November last year and the tax reform has hit the small traders and migrant workers in the state. The traders could tilt the vote in the ruling Congress’ favour as the Sonia Gandhi-led party continues to target the government.

In the last round of assembly elections in five states, especially in Uttar Pradesh, the BJP had projected the results as a vindication of the NDA government’s demonetisation gambit. However, the elections for the 68-member Himachal assembly and the 182 member Gujarat assembly could become a test of public support for the goods and services tax (GST) that triggered protests by traders in Gujarat.

Congress vice president Rahul Gandhi has given indications of the party’s poll planks, attacking the NDA government over an economic slowdown, lack of employment opportunities, hasty rollout of the GST and the plight of farmers, labourers and small traders and businessmen.

Also, talk has gathered pace about Rahul Gandhi taking over as the president of the Congress after Diwali. Should that happen the two states will be his first formal leadership test.

The BJP has put up a brave front citing how the Indian economy is the fastest-growing in the world and obliquely hinted at its return to old themes.

Victories for the BJP could embolden the Centre to stick to its fiscal consolidation path and go for other bold reforms, especially in the labour sector, an adverse poll outcome could put pressure on the government to opt for populism, especially with eight states going to polls next year that would set the momentum for 2019 general elections.

In Himachal, the odds are stacked against the Congress, with chief minister Virbhadra Singh facing charges of corruption and a recent incident of rape of a minor girl on the outskirt of Shimla raising questions about the government’s handling of the law and order situation.

The grand old party has a more daunting task in Gujarat where it won its last assembly elections in 1985. The party suffered a big jolt recently when Sankarsinh Vaghela, a powerful regional satrap, quit the Congress recently to launch a third front in the state.