No wave visible: Apple belt remains one to watch
The rallies of both the parties have drawn an almost equal number of people.HimachalPradeshElection2017 Updated: Nov 07, 2017 16:05 IST
Even as elections are a mere two days away, the absence of a clear wave in the apple belt — Shimla, Kinnaur and Kullu districts — comprising 12 (almost 20%) of the 68 assembly segments has made the main contenders — the Congress and the BJP jittery. The rallies of both the parties have drawn an almost equal number of people. Indeed, the voters in the belt are tight-lipped about their preference; the only occasional and cryptic comment being that these were the ‘elections of goodwill’.
The parties, though, have had issues with the goodwill. The Congress government faced major protests in July after a minor girl’s body was found in a forested area in Kothkhai, around 50km from state capital, Shimla. Eight police officers, including an IG, were arrested after the accused died in police custody. Demonetisation and the Goods and Service Tax (GST), measures of the BJP-led Centre, have not gone down well with traders, who suffered hardships and delayed payments.
Still, the region holds its political significance, two chief ministers Thakur Ram Lal and Virbhadra Singh has been from the belt. Virbhadra has shifted to another seat. Another significant factor that is of interest is that the Congress party’s prominent leader, Vidya Stokes, is out of the electoral fray this time. She is the daughter-in-law of American missionary Samuel Evan Stokes who introduced commercial varieties of apple, grown in parts of Mandi, Shimla, Kullu, Sirmaur and Kinnaur.
Cong swept 1985 polls in the region
Till the 1970s, the region showed mixed results for the parties with no clear trend in place. In the 1980s, the Congress gained prominence, sweeping the 1985 polls in the belt. It won all eight seats in Shimla, the three in Kullu and the lone seat in Kinnaur. In the 1990s, the rise of the BJP did make a dent with Congress reduced to winning three seats in Shimla. The BJP secured four seats and the Janata Dal one, with the rest divided among others.
1990 agitation hurt BJP
The fortunes of the Congress picked up again afterfruit growers rallied together to seek a better support price from the then Shanta Kumar-led BJP government in the state in 1990. To control the agitation, the government ordered firing in Kotgarh. Three farmers were killed and hundreds were jailed in Shimla. The army was also called in to hold a flag march in the capital. The BJP did not return to power in the next elections and the Congress won eight of the 12 seats in apple-growing areas.
In the 1998 polls, the Congress maintained its dominance by winning seven seats. It was the time when the BJP formed the coalition government with the Himachal Vikas Congress. The then CM Prem Kumar Dhumal gradually gained acceptance in the apple belt. In 2007, the BJP secured six seats in the area and formed the government. In 2012, the Congress won eight seats in the belt with the BJP winning the rest.
Traders says demonetisation, GST hit apple economy
“Modi’s demonetisation drive did hit the chain of apple marketing. Merchants and orchid owners had to delay payments to labourers. Merchants made sellers wait for payment,” says Ravinder Chauhan, president, Himachal fruit and vegetable growers association. “The government has done nothing for apple marketing. Farmers are steering it alone. The market also remains unregulated and farmers are at the mercy of traders,” said Ranjit Thakur, a fruit grower from Kotgarh.
The July rape and murder of a schoolgirl ended up sullying the image of the Congress government with an angry mob in Kotkhai torching a police station, after one of the key suspects in the crime was found dead in police custody. The Communist Party and the BJP exploited the issue to the hilt. The government’s defence has been that it has ordered a CBI probe. In campaigning though, the rape and the murder of the minor just finds a passing reference. Even in the Jubbal Kothkhai seat, where the body of the girl was found, the candidates have rarely raised the issue. Congress’ Rohit Thakur and BJP’s Narendra Bragta face-off in this constituency.