Himachal MC poll outcome wake-up call for BJP before assembly elections
The ruling BJP emerged as the single largest party in Wednesday’s municipal corporation elections in Mandi and Dharamshala, where it fell short of a majority by only one seat, while the Congress succeeded in wresting the Palampur and Solan MCs.
The outcome of the MC elections is being seen as a barometer for the 2022 Himachal Pradesh assembly elections and has come as a wake-up call for the BJP in general and first-time chief minister Jai Ram Thakur in particular.
Though his cabinet was opposed to the decision, Thakur chose to hold elections to the four MCs on the party symbol, relenting to pressure from BJP office-bearers, who saw this as an opportunity to assess the voters’ mood ahead of the state elections.
Himachal Congress chief Kuldeep Singh Rathore also wanted the MC elections to be fought on the party symbol after allegations that the BJP misused government machinery during the recent panchayat elections and claimed victory in the zila parishads.
BJP failed to gauge resentment in rural areas
The Jai Ram Thakur government was sure that the creation of the new municipal corporations in Palampur, Solan and Mandi would boost its prospects in the elections. The government had merged rural areas adjoining the towns of Palampur, Mandi and Solan but it failed to gauge the resentment among villagers. Majority of the rural areas merged with municipal corporations sided with the Congress.
However, wrong selection of candidates and factional fight in the BJP also led to the party’s dismal performance in Palampur, where new faces were given preference over dedicated workers.
Former chief minister Shanta Kumar and Rajya Sabha member Indu Goswami, who were vocal in demanding MC status for Palampur were conspicuously absent from the BJP campaign.
Five-time legislator and former chief minister Prem Kumar Dhumal’s confidant Ravinder Singh Ravi, who holds sway in Palampur, was also ignored. Instead, the chief minister appointed his trusted lieutenant and industries minister Bikram Singh as the party’s election in-charge, aided by party general secretary Trilok Kapoor.
On the other hand, former Vidhan Sabha Speaker Brij Bihari Butail and his legislator son Ashish Butail’s rapport with people helped the Congress win 11 of the 15 seats in Palampur, while the BJP could win only two seats.
Face-saver for BJP, CM in Mandi
In Mandi, chief minister Jai Ram Thakur’s personal prestige was at stake. He campaigned relentlessly in his hometown and entrusted the responsibility of the campaign in the constituency to his seniormost minister, Mahender Singh Thakur.
Thakur repeatedly visited the town and struck an emotional chord with the voters, enabling the BJP to win 11 of the 15 seats and secure 47.31% of the vote share, while the Congress bagged four seats with 32.85% vote share.
The Mandi MC election also holds importance given the fact that the Mandi Lok Sabha constituency is set to see a byelection. The seat fell vacant after the recent death of sitting MP Ramswaroop Sharma.
United Congress wins over Solan
The BJP faced unexpected poll reverses in Solan due to infighting even as it deputed its best political manager and Nahan legislator Dr Rajeev Bindal and former horticulture minister Narendra Bragta at the forefront of the campaign.
Bindal’s trusted candidates tasted defeat in the elections. The ruling party won seven seats, while the Congress won nine in Solan. Bindal represented Solan assembly segment before shifting base to Nahan after his home turf was reserved in the delimitation exercise.
Bindal’s relations with the chief minister soured after he was forced to resign as the state party chief when his name surfaced in a medical equipment purchase scam during the pandemic in May last year.
Though he was later given a clean chit, Bindal has been ignored and not been included in the government set-up.
Congress leaders put up a united campaign in Solan that was led by Sujanpur legislator Rajinder Singh Rana, who defeated his mentor and former chief minister Prem Kumar Dhumal in the assembly elections. More than Rana’s efforts, it was the Congress unity that bore fruits, despite the fact that the opposition lacked resources. The Congress ran a low-key campaign, taking a door-to-door approach.
Setback for Congress in Dharamshala
The Dharamshala Municipal Corporation poll result came as a setback for former Congress minister Sudhir Sharma, who was hoping to stage a comeback after refusing to contest the 2019 byelections. The Congress won five seats in the Dharamshala MC.
The results were below expectations for the BJP that won eight seats and fell one short of a majority. Four independents, who won the elections, hold the key to the mayor and deputy mayor’s election. Interestingly, all four were expelled from their respective parties after they decided to contest as independents. Two have a Congress background and two BJP.
The MC elections have given much-needed relief to state chief Kuldeep Rathore, whose leadership was being questioned following losses in the Lok Sabha, assembly byelections and panchayat polls.
Sukhvinder Singh Sukhu, who aspires to become Congress Legislative Party leader or state Congress chief, suffered a setback as the party lost in Dharamshala, where he was the party’s campaign in-charge.