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Himachal election results 2017: Why the hill state always votes for one or the other national party

The voters in Himachal have been offered choices between parties like the Sukh Ram led Himachal Vikas Congress, Aam Aadmi Party and the Communist Party of India (CPI-M). However, good intents or high motives seem dwarfed under the question of the “ability to govern”

analysis Updated: Dec 20, 2017 11:06 IST
Bhanu Joshi
Bhanu Joshi
Himachal election results,HP election results,BJP
Party workers and supporters celebrating the BJP’s success in Gujarat and Himachal Pradesh outside the BJP headquarters, in New Delhi on Monday(PTI)

Himachal Pradesh has seen a change in government again. This follows a pattern in the state where an incumbent has not been voted back and power has alternated between the Congress and the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). A change in government could be seen as an example of an apathetic voter. Specifically, it could be argued that satisfactory levels of public services in the state have made the Himachali voter less interested in politics — she has become a passive voter. Indeed, Himachal a relatively young state, which was granted statehood in 1972, has quickly climbed to the top of the human development indices. Yet, there are reasons to believe that the Himachali voter is highly engaged and invested in its electoral democracy.

The turnout of 74.5% in this election was a ten-point increase from the 2014 Lok Sabha election (64.45%) and was a record high when compared with 73.51% turnout in 2012 and 71.61% turnout in 2007. There are no discernible conclusions that can be drawn from the high turnout except that high voting is correlated to higher interest in political engagements. There is also an immense information flow about local candidates in the state. This is analogous to my experience in the field from other states where information is not only available but is also central to the elector’s decision-making process. One of the distinguishing features of rural, agrarian community life is a conducive informal informational flow which Himachal with its large agrarian base and small habitation fully satisfies. Also, the salience of biradari (kith and kin) in voting preferences is hard to miss, yet, increased informational flows outside of this construct have made interactions between the voter and the candidates more direct, helping the voter make decision autonomous of their communities.

Debunking the passive voter myth, the next question to tackle would be why does Himachal only vote for two parties – the BJP and the Congress. It does seem reasonable to argue that the intuitive idea of being able to govern, whatever be the political strains, is of prime importance. The voters in Himachal have been offered choices between parties like the Sukh Ram-led Himachal Vikas Congress, Aam Aadmi Party and the Communist Party of India (CPI-M). However, good intentions or high motives seem dwarfed under the question of the “ability to govern”. This salience in two parties hence partly explains why the contest is, except for few peripheral constituencies, reduced to a fight between the BJP and the Congress.

So, is the BJP’s win in Himachal a political necessity born out of lost possibility? For starters, it would be hard to argue that the BJP was able to craft a transformative agenda for this election. A combination of events in the last five years of the Congress’ rule and profound churning within Himachali society could offer better answers.

First, lowering incomes from agriculture in the apple growing region, out-migration of young people and immigration of low skilled labour, and crony capitalism in granting real estate/industrial projects have created deep social tensions. Besides, the political setup in the state has been built over the dense network of patronage and cronies; of which appointments and transfers in government jobs and public work awards are most salient. The rape and murder of a minor girl in Kotkhai village and a killing of a forest guard allegedly by the forest mafia is symptomatic of this societal tension and patronage politics. Botched up investigations under pressure from political elites in both cases, resulted in independent citizen-led forums making corruption and crime a political issue. The BJPs electoral campaign, therefore, focused much more on discussing anti-corruption measures, including the setting up of a 24-hour helpline within the chief minister’s office and a task force of ex-servicemen to take on the drug mafia and crime.

Second, a comparison of electoral data of this election to previous four assembly elections suggests that the Congress this time performed much worse in its core constituencies of the “hill” districts. Scholars have divided Himachal for historical and societal reasons into two areas; the hill districts also called “old Himachal” and the plain districts which were merged from Punjab in 1966. Both “hill” and “plain” districts of Himachal have 34 constituencies each and have played a counterbalancing force in the politics of the state; the hills have traditionally voted for Congress and the plains for the BJP. Electoral data from 2003 to 2012 suggests that the Congress on an average won 17 of the 34 constituencies in the hill districts whereas BJP on an average won only 8 of the 34 constituencies. In this election, so far, the Congress had won just 20% (7 seats) whereas BJP won 74% (25 seats) of the constituencies in hill districts. This shift from the Congress to the BJP amongst the voters from the hill areas has to partly do with the political economy of the apple belt, where massive fluctuations in prices and slow pace of integration of the apple market to national market has caused deep misery amongst the growers.

The repercussions of the results are measured for both parties. A crisis of leadership is already visible — one of the truly mass leaders of the Congress party, Virbhadhra Singh faces corruption cases, and a change of guard in the party is imminent. While the mandate of the voter for the BJP is clear, the defeat of its chief ministerial candidate, Prem Kumar Dhumal in his constituency is a damning commentary on the leadership crisis of the BJP.

Dismantling mafias and patronage networks and balancing it with institutional reforms to making Himachal transition from an agrarian state to an industrial one - tasks for the new government are already cut out.

Bhanu Joshi is PhD student in political science at Brown University, USA

The views expressed are personal

First Published: Dec 20, 2017 11:06 IST