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Himachal elections: Local dynamics may decide outcome as BJP, Congress eye victory

In the run-up to the Himachal elections, the Congress made the Goods and Services Tax and demonetisation its central planks.

assembly elections Updated: Nov 09, 2017 07:52 IST
DK Singh
DK Singh
Shimla/Hamirpur/Una, Hindustan Times
Himachal elections,Himachal Pradesh elections,Himachal polls
Congress vice-president Rahul Ghandhi with Himachal Pradesh CM Virbhadra Singh waves to a crowd at an election rally at Nagrota in Kangra.(PTI FILE)

Shakuntala Devi looked on nonchalantly as a men on motorbikes with saffron flags drove past her towards Una, about 50 km away. She continued to chat with her neighbours in Sumurkhurd — a village in Himachal Pradesh’s Una district – about monkeys, pigs and “jungli cows”, who came down from the hills and damaged their maize crop a few weeks ago.

Their hopes now hinged on wheat, a bigger concern than the fate of chief minister Virbhadra Singh or his challenger, Bharatiya Janata Party’s (BJP) Prem Kumar Dhumal.

Not that the government doesn’t touch their lives. Shakuntala Devi gets Rs 650 per month as widow pension. Nishi Devi gets subsidy for her LPG cylinder directly in her husband’s bank account. Many in Sumurkhurd got Rs 12,000 for toilet construction and Rs 75,000 to construct a house.

But they are not sure which government – the central or state – is behind these benefits. Such confusion abounds in the hill state amid competing claims for credit by the BJP and the Congress. Cryptic smiles greet queries about voting preferences. “Virendra Kanwal (three-term BJP MLA seeking re-election), of course,” said Thakur Chhajuram, joining the conversation. But it’s not because of the NDA government’s welfare schemes. Kanwal is “very humble” and is amidst them all the time “be it marriage or funeral”. “Besides, it’s good to have the same government at the Centre as well,” explained Chhajuram.

This is the narrative the BJP has been building in its attempt to dislodge chief minister Singh. But on the ground, the dominant narrative is that of the people having opted for “change” in every election since 1990 – a phenomenon that cannot be explained by socioeconomic developmental records because there’s not much to choose between the two parties in the state that’s done well in terms of increasing literacy rate, state GDP growth and arresting infant mortality rate.

“It’s a very close contest this time. Raja sahib (Virbhadra Singh) has surprised everyone with his spirited campaign,” said Dr Harish Thakur, head of political science department at Himachal Pradesh University.

Barking up the wrong tree?

The Congress made the Goods and Services Tax (GST) and demonetisation its central planks but these issues didn’t seem to draw much traction beyond media headlines. Nishi Devi of Sumurkhurd village told HT she had “no evidence” but was sure “kaalaa dhan (black money)” was unearthed.

Harjinder, owner of a small store at Tutu village on the outskirts of Shimla, was upset about GST as his profit margins were hit. He used to buy a packet of ‘kurkure’ for R 8.80 and sell it for R 10 earlier. Post-GST, he buys it for R 9.40 now. “Everybody has to do it. I will also get by. It is pinching big traders more,” said Harjinder.

The apple-growers in Jubbal-Kotkhai and Theog constituencies on the outskirts of Shimla were vocal critics of demonetisation but that may not help the Congress as the discourse was dominated by the failing law and order situation following the gangrape and murder of a 16-year-old in Kotkhai earlier this year.

The Congress did look better prepared than previous state elections but seems to be missing touch with the ground, as was evident from its emphasis on GST and demonetisation- in both speeches and in the party manifesto. The BJP’s decision to make the gangrape case a poll plank seemed to be drawing traction but its attack on Singh over corruption charges may not have stuck.

“When he (the CM) comes for Janata Darbar every morning, he gives out at least R 5,000-6,000 to anyone in need. He has so much of ancestral property. Accusing him of corruption worth Rs 5 crore is only politics,” said Hariram Thakur of Bathalong village in Arki, Virbhadra Singh’s new constituency.

Apprehension about corruption charges against Singh did not look limited to Arki. “Corruption is not a big issue in this election. Most of the people are not convinced about allegations against Virbhadra Singh,” said Dr Thakur.

The Congress has tried to play the victim.

“Virbhadraji ki beti, Himachal ki beti ko shaadi ke din CBI ka chhapa dalwane wale BJP ko #jabab dega Himachal (Himachal will reply to the BJP that ordered a CBI raid on the day of marriage of Virbhadraji’s daughter, Himachal’s daughter),” read a WhatsApp message sent out by the party.

The BJP kept the heat on though. “Look at mining mafia, forest mafia! In Chamba and Shimla, thousands of trees were felled and illegally sold. Kidnapping of kids, Gudiya case… we have been raising our voice on so many issues and here the chief minister is busy applying for bail and appearing in court cases,” Anurag Thakur, BJP MP from Hamirpur and Dhumal’s son, told HT.

Advantages and Disadvantages of the Principal Players

The BJP starts with an edge, given the people’s mandate for change every five years. The party also seems to be ahead of the Congress in managing the perception battle. Schedules of Prime Minister Narendra Modi, Uttar Pradesh chief minister Yogi Adityanath, Union ministers Rajnath Singh, Smriti Irani and Piyush Goyal are all over local papers. Helicopters carrying top BJP leaders criss-cross the sky. The Congress, however, seemed to be hamstrung due to a resource crunch, with only Virbhadra Singh given a helicopter to lead the campaign.

For the BJP in a state where Rajputs constitute over one-fourth of the population, Dhumal’s declaration as the BJP’s chief ministerial candidate was seen as an attempt to woo the dominant community. But some in the party are worried about the implications of denying the mantle to two prominent Brahmin leaders—Shanta Kumar and JP Nadda. Brahmins constitute about one-fifth of the state’s population.

In the absence of a wave in favour of any party, local factors could influence the poll outcome in many constituencies. Dhumal, for instance, is facing a stiff challenge from Congress candidate and erstwhile protégé, Rajender Singh Rana, in Sujanpur. The BJP’s CM candidate had to rope in Adityanath to campaign in his constituency. There are reports of rebellion by BJP leaders in many places, including Kangra—where Shanta Kumar still holds sway-- that comprises 15 assembly constituencies.

The Congress has its own share of intra-party rebellion. For instance, Vidya Stokes’ failure to contest from Theog seat—and the nomination of a young leader as the party candidate—has significantly undermined the party’s chances in that seat. The party has expelled former Shimla deputy mayor and the CM’s close aide, Harish Janartha, who is contesting as an independent candidate from Shimla. Another Virbhadra loyalist, Hardeep Baba, is contesting as an independent candidate from Nalagarh. Among other Congress rebels contesting are former vice-president Puran Chand, six-term MLA and former minister Singhi Ram, and former minister Vijai Singh Mankotia.

As people go to the polls on Thursday, the Congress and the BJP remained optimistic. The Congress said it was confident of “a clear victory” in 32 of the 68 assembly constituencies and “neck-and-neck” contest in as many constituencies. BJP sources said their internal surveys gave the party at least 45 seats in the assembly, “which might go up”.

On December 18 when the results are declared, it will be clear which party caught the pulse of the people.

(With inputs from Gaurav Bisht in Shimla)

First Published: Nov 09, 2017 07:00 IST