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Himachal polls: Anti-incumbency, not graft, could cost Virbhadra govt dear

Corruption charges against chief minister Virbhadra Singh have become the favourite rallying point for the BJP. Be it Prime Minister Narendra Modi, BJP chief Amit Shah or local leaders, it’s the one charge that comes up in every speech.

HimachalPradeshElection2017 Updated: Nov 05, 2017 15:53 IST
Manraj Grewal Sharma
Manraj Grewal Sharma
Hindustan Times, Jawali (Kangra)
Himachal Pradesh Assembly election 2017,Himachal assembly polls 2017,Prem Kumar Dhumal
Locals at a makeshift bus stop in Fatehpur in Kangra district. (Karun Sharma/HT)

It’s a matter of perspective. For the BJP, which is on the offensive in poll-bound Himachal Pradesh, corruption is issue number 1 but for Congress leaders it’s an embarrassment they brazen through with counter charges. For the voters, it’s the reason behind the slow pace of development in the state, so evident in its rutted roads.

Corruption charges against chief minister Virbhadra Singh have become the favourite rallying point for the BJP. Be it Prime Minister Narendra Modi, BJP chief Amit Shah or local leaders, it’s the one charge that comes up in every speech. The BJP leaders blame the CM’s preoccupation with his disproportionate assets case—Virbhadra and his wife Pratibha are currently out on bail—for his inability to deliver.

Virbhadra, on the other hand, tries to deflect the charges by focusing instead on the “sudden rise in the fortunes” of Shah’s son Jay.

Ashutosh Kumar points out that the hill state has always played ‘satellite politics’ and looks to the Centre both for financial support and political direction.

NO DEVELOPMENT

The voter is disillusioned. Ashok Kumar, who runs a sweets shop at Kutlehar, is non-committal on charges of corruption against Virbhadra but is angry at the lack of development. “For us, nothing has changed. Whatever development happened, must have taken place in our MLA’s borough,” he says. The shopkeeper of the adjoining shop, Mohinder Pal, chuckles as he says, “He (the MLA) must have first benefited himself through commissions.”

More vocal about the Kotkhai gangrape and murder in July, both agreed that the incident had damaged the prospects of the Congress far more than the corruption case.

Ashutosh Kumar, a political scientist at Panjab University, says it’s not the crime as much as the belief that the guilty were shielded due to their connections that fuelled public ire in the case that rocked the chief minister’s bastion of upper Himachal.

“This hill state is known for its clean politics. Whether people speak openly about the charges against Virbhadra or not, the corruption case is bound to affect voters. The mishandling of the Kotkhai gangrape case was the final nail in the coffin,” says Ashutosh, claiming that Virbhadra is the biggest liability for the Congress, which should have looked for a new face.

BS Sharma, a farmer from Bhatti Uparli village in Fatehpur, who spouts perfect English, was more upset with the lack of development. “Nothing’s changed here in 10 years. We are yet to get a metalled road to the village. I still depend on rainwater for irrigation. The primary school, which was there 57 years ago, is yet to be upgraded.”

Others waiting at the makeshift bus stop under a tree at Fatehpur nod in agreement. “They are all the same,” says RS Thakur from Diana village. Ask them if they are sore about demonetisation, and a middle-aged Kamlesh Rani, who was sitting quietly, pipes in with “it was a little inconvenience for a larger good”.

But Virbhadra also has his share of loyalists who tell you they have never voted for anyone else. Krishna Devi, a plump granny at Kandiala village in Jawali, explains the whys. “We are small farmers. Right now we have the ears of Congressmen in the district but who will we approach for help if we start switching loyalties?”

‘SATELLITE POLITICS’

Political observers say the corruption case has been around for long, it’s the anti-incumbency that could be more damaging for the Virbhadra government.

Harish Kumar Thakur, the chairman of the political science department at Himachal Pradesh University, says corruption is now considered a “side business”. “Over time, voters have become friendly with this issue. It is anti-incumbency that will affect the Congress. The Himachal voter has a history of never repeating a government. Even when Virbhadra called elections a year early after performing well, people voted him out of power,” he says.

Adding to this narrative, Ashutosh Kumar points out that the hill state has always played “satellite politics” and looks to the Centre both for financial support and political direction.

This is evident on the ground as a woman in Nurpur, who claims to have voted for Virbhadra, speaks reverentially about Modi ji. “He is paying a lot of attention to Himachal,” she says.

First Published: Nov 05, 2017 14:18 IST