“Riwaaz badal raha hai (the tradition is about to change)”. That’s the popular buzz in the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) circles in Himachal, where power has been swapped between Congress and the BJP over the past three decades. Banking on Prime Minister’s Midas touch Narendra Modicthe ruling party has urged voters to break this routine and bring it to power for a second consecutive term in the parliamentary elections on November 12.
While party leaders in Delhi are optimistic, old observers of state politics are more cautious. “These are early days. Congress is still in the game, and there is anger among the people about governance issues. Also, the arrival of newcomer AAP could influence the results in a state where the victory margins are often small,” said an experienced journalist.
The saffron festival, which… dropped 11 incumbent MLAsused to be gripped by rebellion shortly after ticket allocation this week, which forced him to crack the whip and… rebels threaten suspension for six years.
One of the uprisings took place in Mandi, CM Jairam Thakur’s home district, where Praveen Sharma, co-responsible for the party’s media, announced that he will fight independently of Mandi Sadar.
The BJP’s decision to place two Congressional defectors has also angered local leaders. In Nalagarh, KL Thakur, former BJP MLA, submitted his nomination as an independent on Thursday when the party gave the ticket to incumbent Congress MLA Lakhwinder Singh Rana, who recently switched sides. Regardless of the party’s warning, he drew a large crowd in his rally, theme, “Mera kasoor kya hai (what’s my mistake?).” Also in Dharamshala, about 200 supporters of Vishal Naihariya, the incumbent BJP MLA, have resigned in protest over the ticket for congressional defector Rakesh Chaudhary.
The power struggle within political families is also starting to bite the BJP. Vandana Guleria, daughter of Jal Shakti minister Mahender Singh Thakur, quit her post in Mahila Morcha party on a whim when her younger brother Rajat Thakur was awarded the ticket. Hiteshwar Singh, a Kullu royal, also threatens to fight as an independent from Banjar after his father, former BJP state president Maheshwar Singh, got the ticket from Kullu (Sadar) but was denied, under BJP’s “one family, one ticket ” rule.
But party leaders say they are confident in appeasing them all, with central leaders like JP Nadda expected to step in.
The party is also accused of bad governance. For example, the CMO has seen six chief secretaries in the past five years. A number of government initiatives have failed the review of the courts. The most recent was the notice of Ari Nagar Panchayat, which was quashed by the Himachal Supreme Court. The draft of Shimla Development Plan 2041 was also blocked by the National Green Tribunal. Such missteps have led to the perception of a “soft” CM who is teased by cunning supporters.
This could explain why BJP is relying on the Modi magic and central schemes in these polls.
Those who see an edge for the BJP cite the poor state of the Congress at the center and the BJP’s nationalist policies. Prof. dr. Harish Thakur, a political scientist at Himachal Pradesh University, says: “Many of the central schemes have benefited the local population. Ayushman Bharat has turned out to be a godsend for many. Also, people love Modi. His nationalist approach resonates in a state where a large number of young people join the armed forces.”
BJP has sought to fight anti-incumbency by refusing tickets to 11 incumbent lawmakers. It also successfully passed all speculation about former Prime Minister Prem Kumar Dhumal in the battle for the highest post by refusing him a ticket. Although some of his loyalists were on the second list, the party’s high command has made it clear that they are curtains for the Dhumal era.
The Congress, on the other hand, faces a serious leadership crisis as it fights its first parliamentary election without Virbhadra Singh, the six-time CM of the hill state who passed away in July 2021. “Virbhadra had a massive following. He was believed to have at least 4,000 votes in each constituency,” said Prof. Kamal, a retired HPU professor.
Although the party has appointed his widow Pratibha Singh, many see her as part of the problem and not the solution, even though she won the Mandi parliament seat in the October 2021 elections.
In 2017, the party had just 21 seats, half of the BJP’s 44, in the 68-member Assembly. That number fell to 19 this year when two of its MLAs defected to the BJP.
The power struggle continues to overwhelm Congress and prevent it from making the most of the ambitious manifesto it released in September, which included 10 poll guarantees including free power, a monthly stipend of Rs 1,500 for women aged 18 to 60, back to the old pension system and purchase of cow dung for Rs 2 per kg.
The big old party is counting on anti-incumbency, anger at price hikes and misgovernment to make a comeback. CM Jairam Thakur had blamed the price hike for the Congress sweep in the October 2021 polls when it won the Mandi Lok Sabha seat and three Assembly seats of Fatehpur, Arki and Jubbal Kotkhai.
Earlier in the summer, the state looked poised for its first triangular match, just as fresh after its thumping victory in neighboring Punjab, Aam Aadmi party cast his net on Himachal. Chief Minister of Delhi Arvind Kejriwal and his deputy, Manish Sisodia, toured the state over the summer with a slew of guarantees and told the people that they would be doing a Punjab rerun here too. But their state unit is in shambles, with senior party leaders attached to it since 2017, joining Congress or the BJP. While the head of state unit Anup Kesri joined the saffron party, Nikka Singh Patial, one of the party’s founding members in the state, stepped over to Congress.
Lately, the party has focused on Gujarat. It was only last week that it appointed Harjot Singh Bains, the youngest minister in the Punjab cabinet, to be responsible for state polling. The party list has some interesting names, but whether they will be able to make a dent remains to be seen. However, AAP claims that many of its candidates will be in for a surprise.
Buoyed by his win of the Theog chair in 2017, the CPI(M) also prepared 11 candidatesone against the CM, in Seraj.
Political observers say the two sides could take the field ahead of the two traditional rivals. The picture will become clearer after October 28, the deadline for withdrawing nominations.
After that, it’s up to the voter who keeps his cards close to his chest.