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Himachal Pradesh Election Results 2017: Corruption charges derailed the Congress

The saffron surge was unmistakably powered by a groundswell of public ire against the incumbent Congress that ended up paying a heavy electoral price for the ‘mafia raj’ tag

analysis Updated: Dec 19, 2017 00:31 IST
Himachal Pradesh Election Results 2017,Virbhadra Singh,Congress
Withering barbs and sharp-tongued humour was the staple of PM Modi’s blistering attack in his seven rallies across the state during which he taunted chief minister Virbhadra Singh and Rahul Gandhi as “Zamanati neta” ( leaders out on court bail).(HT Photo)

Corruption is the most potent election swinger. That’s the single most important reason for the BJP’s spectacular victory in the Himachal Pradesh assembly polls. The saffron surge was powered by a groundswell of public ire against the incumbent Congress, a party which paid a heavy price for the ‘mafia raj’ tag it had acquired in five years of power in Shimla.

It’s easy to interpret Monday’s verdict through the rotational dynamics of bipolar politics of the hill state where the Congress and the BJP have ruled alternately since 1977. This time, however, the sheer scale and spread of BJP’s resounding two-thirds majority victory has more to do with a skilful amplification of the issue of corruption.

From the outset, the BJP strategists focused their poll pitch on just one person: the 83-year-old Congress lynchpin Virbhadra Singh, who, for much of his fifth tenure as chief minister, has been investigated by the Central Bureau of Investigation, the Enforcement Directorate and the Income Tax department for cases of corruption and disproportionate assets.That armed the BJP with enormous ammunition for fusillades against Congress and its most recognisable but beleaguered face in the hill state.

The BJP’s campaigners-in-chief, Narendra Modi and Amit Shah, deftly tapped into the popular mood by pitching their high-decibel poll narrative around the alleged cash-and-carry allegations against the Congress rule – in a sense, a repeat of the BJP’s line of attack in the 2014 Lok Sabha polls.

Withering barbs and acerbic humour were the staple of Modi’s blistering attack in his seven rallies across the state. He taunted Virbhadra and Rahul Gandhi as “zamanati neta” ( leaders out on court bails), and called upon the voters to rid the ‘dev bhoomi’ ( abode of Gods as Himachal is known) of the ‘demons of the mafia raj’. In the end, the BJP’s tirade, built on corruption and law and order, overwhelmed the Congress’s poll pitch, built on GST and demonetisation and its development plank.

Undoubtedly, Modi’s charisma, coupled with a well-oiled election machine and an aggressive RSS-led grassroots mobilisation, helped the BJP decimate the Congress even in its traditional bastion of upper Himachal where the rape and murder of a schoolgirl in the run-up to elections turned up the heat on the incumbent. That Modi was the prime voter-catcher is also evident from the manner in which two-time CM Prem Kumar who, in a last-hour change of strategy, was projected as the candidate for the top job, lost.

The Congress staked its comeback gambit solely on Virbhadra Singh, the scam-hit scion of Rampur Bushehar. The party may have erred in assessing Singh’s appeal and his ability to galvanise the party rank and file which was deeply divided between his loyalists and his detractors.

Not that the party high command had much of a choice. Singh has been the party’s only bet for four decades now. And he has grown larger than the party, surviving on a fiercely loyal section of state leaders and cadres. A feeble attempt at fighting this election under a collective leadership with an active role for state Congress chief, Sukhvinder Singh Sukhu, was stymied by Singh who, in the run-up to the elections, even threatened not to contest and campaign.

The party went along with his hardball tactics. It projected Singh as its chief ministerial face, much against the opinion of several leaders; it gave him a free hand in candidate selection; and it even relaxed its ‘one-family-one-ticket’ formula that allowed Singh to field his son Vikramaditya Singh from his home turf of Shimla (rural). For Virbhadra Singh, this election was not only about his political survival in the face of serious court cases, it also reflected his dynastic dreams.

The Congress is now in power only in Punjab, Karnataka, Meghalaya and Mizoram. This underscores the limits of the popular appeal of a hegemonic regional satrap. It also reflects the failure to groom a second-rung leadership. Clearly, the Congress will now have to look beyond Virbhadra Singh. While the party can take heart from Gujarat, it can ill-afford to ignore the hard lessons from its humiliating downhill slide in Himachal.

ramesh.vinayak@hindustantimes.com

First Published: Dec 18, 2017 16:51 IST