The BJP which, at one time, appeared to be a clear winner in the Himachal Pradesh assembly polls seems to have pitched itself into a tough contest largely because of its over- eagerness to project senior leader Prem Kumar Dhumal as the chief ministerial candidate, in preference over the other leader, Shanta Kumar. In fact, the party would have been better off had it waited for the results before announcing the name of its possible Chief Minister (CM).
<b1>The announcement has led to total disappointment in the Shanta Kumar camp as the former CM has decided not to contest the polls, preferring to wait for parliamentary elections next time. His supporters feel that Shanta Kumar’s marginalisation is likely to cost the BJP dearly because of two reasons. First, Shanta Kumar represents the Kangra region, which accounts for 16 seats, the largest in the assembly from one segment. Second, being a Brahmin, the move has sent strong signals to the Brahmin community which may or may not vote for the saffron brigade this time. Third, what could be dangerous both for the Congress and the BJP is that Kangra has been left clear for BSP head Vijay Singh Mankotia, a prominent Rajput leader and former Congress minister. Such an experiment will take place in the hill state for the first time. Himachal has witnessed fights only between the Congress and the BJP. Mankotia who, some say, has committed the folly of contesting from Dharmshala this time could hold the key, if he and his party men win anything up to nine or ten seats.
A tall order but possible if the experiment succeeds, because Dalits and backwards in Himachal Pradesh are economically and vocationally better-off than in the rest of the country. A Dalit-Backward and Rajput combination, coupled with disgruntled Brahmins, could make the BSP a formidable force.
The BJP was banking very heavily on doing well in Kangra in order to wrest the state from the Congress. But Dhumal, who completed a five-year term in office last time, will need all his abilities to inspire the cadres. He belongs to Hamirpur which has only five seats. Overall, the party seems better placed in Hamirpur, Bilaspur and Una in comparison to the Congress. Allegations of corruption against Dhumal the last time, especially by then Punjab CM, Amarinder Singh, seem to have been forgotten, given that the track record of the current Congress government has not been very flattering either.
Dhumal’s supporters feel that Shanta Kumar is both over-rated and irrelevant to Himachal politics. He has twice lost his own assembly seat and the parliamentary polls twice as well. His own assembly seat is represented by a Congressman and it is unlikely that the BJP will win from there even this time. Shanta Kumar has won only whenever there is a wave of support, never when he has had to swim against the tide. A Punjabi, who has lived in Himachal for years, he did show some signs of having a vision during his first tenure but was clearly ahead of his times.
The Congress has its own cup of woes. CM Virbhadra, perhaps, believes that even if the Congress returns to power, his chances of occupying the august office are bleak. Detractors say that he has never been able to hold on to power towards the end of his five stints as CM. The BJP has always followed him. Another charge against him is that he has never allowed any younger leader to be groomed in the state because of which there is no one who can take over from him. Senior leader Vidya Stokes is not getting any younger but, like Virbhadra, may win comfortably from Kumarsain.
The Congress expects to do well in the Shimla district and in Mandi where even the state BJP chief could lose the polls. Mandi, once the stronghold of former Union Minister Sukhram, has 10 seats, which could help in shifting the levers of power. Sukhram’s son is contesting and is likely to get elected without any difficulty. Tek Chand Dogra, Prakash Choudhury and Shiv Lal are others who seem to be comfortably placed in the Mandi district. Shimla district has nine seats and barring one — Jubbal Kotkhai where the BJP appears to be strong — the Congress should win most of the others. The Shimla town seat could go either way in the contest between the Congress, the BJP and the CPI(M).
In the distribution of tickets, the Congress has bungled. The Solan ticket has gone to Dr Parashar, a nominee of Union Minister Anand Sharma, at the expense of Captain Mohini, the face of the party there. In Chamba, state minister and former Youth Congress president Harsh Mahajan has opted out of the contest for personal reasons. In many other places, the Congress has not been able to replace its MLAs against whom there was a strong anti-incumbency factor. Himachal’s best-known freedom fighter late Wazirram Singh’s grandson, Kewal Singh Bhudania, is contesting as an independent from Noorpur in Kangra and is expected to win. Karan Singh, an independent in Banjar in Kullu may pull off a win as an independent from Chintpurni in Una. Also from Una, Delhi favourite Mukesh Agnihotri is fighting the battle of his life against BSP and BJP candidates.
Himachal could surprise everybody with the results. The last time when the BJP won on the Hindutva plank in Gujarat, Himachal, a predominantly Hindu state, threw the party out proving that the Hindutva experiment could only work where there is polarisation between Muslims and Hindus. This time, anti-incumbency could play a role. The contest could spring a few surprises in case the BSP plays spoiler for the two biggies. But as things stand today, the BJP continues to hold a slight edge. Between us.