Himachal in Election Mode

As assembly elections in Himachal Pradesh are due later this year, the two mainstream parties in the state – Congress and BJP – are gearing up for a no-holds-barred electoral battle in the hill state, reports RAKESH LOHUMI from Shiml

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Buoyed by its massive electoral victories in Uttar Pradesh and the neighbouring Uttarakhand, an upbeat BJP is raring to have a go at the ruling Congress in Himachal where assembly elections are due later this year.
Keen to keep the winning momentum going the BJP set its electoral juggernaut rolling in the hill state with an impressive rally of Prime Minister Narendra Modi in Shimla. It was followed by the visit of party president Amit Shah to Kangra, the largest and politically most significant district, who interacted with the top leadership of the party in the state, including MPs, MLAs and office-bearers, to help work out the poll strategy.
While the continuing string of electoral reverses seems to have left the Congress high command in complete disarray, there is a sense of urgency in the central leadership of BJP which is meticulously planning all its moves. The first action Amit Shah took on his return to Delhi after his two-day sojourn in Palampur was to appoint Mangal Pandey, the Bihar BJP chief, as in-charge of party affairs in Himachal in place of Shrikant Sharma, who has been made a minister in Uttar Pradesh. The recent win of the BJP in by-election to the Bhoranj assembly seat has not made the party complacent. The high command is fully involved in planning the party’s strategy for the state polls.

overALL poLL sCenArIo for THe Congress In HIMACHAL prAdesH CAn AT THe vTHeery LeAsT be desCrIbed As exTreMeLy worrIsoMe

The overall poll scenario for the Congress can only be described as worrisome in the wake of the drubbing it has received across the country since the BJP-led NDA dislodged the UPA at the Centre. Nevertheless, it is striving hard to retain power in the state against all odds and in the process resorting to desperate measures to buck anti-incumbency which has played a decisive role in the past elections. The Virbhadra Singh government has been in the election mode ever since the UPA was ousted from the Centre and it has been taking one populist decision after the other to woo various sections of the electorate. There is a lurking sense of desperation in its actions. Some of these decisions, like regularisation of illegal structures and encroachments, making Dharamsala the second capital of the state and grant of unemployment allowance, will have severe long-term implications for governance and already failing financial health of the government.
However, things wouldn’t have come to such a pass if the BJP had behaved like a responsible opposition. Instead of raising real issues affecting the people the BJP kept making reckless demands to corner the ruling party. It adopted an aggressive posture on the issue of regularisation of illegal structures and encroachments, accused Congress of ignoring the Kangra region and not fulfilling the promise to grant unemployment allowance to gain political mileage. However, its strategy boomeranged as the ruling Congress, which had nothing to lose, implemented all the demands to disarm the BJP. All this makes obvious that policywise there is no difference between the two mainstream parties in the state which have been indulging in competitive populism and in the process good governance has become a major casualty.
There is no justification for a small state like Himachal with a population of just 70 lakh to have two capitals.  It is already under heavy debt with outstanding loans touching Rs 45,000 crore and 85 percent of its budget going towards committed liabilities on account of salaries, pensions, loan repayment and subsidies. The decision to woo the people of Kangra region is totally out of sync with the policy of e-governance being pursued in the country. Huge funds have been invested for creating IT infrastructure along with a surfeit of internet-based applications to help provide various public services to citizens on the click of a mouse. Similarly, the decision to dole out unemployment allowance and regularise contract workers will further burden the already strained state exchequer. The BJP government had also adopted similar tactics in 2003 and 2007 and taken a host of populist decisions but it still failed to retain power.
However, the Congress is focusing on Kangra as part of its strategy as it is the region where BJP has lost its grip. In the last assembly elections BJP failed to get a majority mainly due to its poor performance in Kangra. It managed to win only three out of the total 15 seats in the district. The party has failed to throw up any strong leader after Shanta Kumar who headed the BJP governments in the state in 1977 and 1990 and also remained a minister in the Atal Bihari Vajpayee government. The decision to make Dharamsala the second capital is part of its effort to consolidate its hold and prevent BJP from regaining the lost ground.

bjp CAdres Are no Longer worrIed AbouT THe LeAdersHIp Issue As THey Are ConfIdenT of ModI MAgIC TAkIng THeM To THe wInnIng posT

Populism has not paid political dividends to any party in the past. The electorate of the peaceful hill state with one of the highest literacy rates have been displaying political maturity in exercising their franchise still Chief Minister Virbhadra Singh and leader of opposition P.K.Dhumal are not willing to learn any lessons. The state has been witnessing a change of guard with every election since 1990 when the BJP-Janata Dal combine wrested power from the Congress. Neither of the two parties could overcome the anti-incumbency in subsequent elections and taking turns the Congress won in 1993, 2003 and 2012, while the BJP formed governments in 1998 and 2008.Going by the trend it is BJP’s turn to be in the saddle.
This is perhaps one of the main reasons why the Congress is taking all these populis
decisions, ignoring the precarious financial position of the state. With the high command in no position to assert its authority or help out the state the onus of mobilising resources and carrying out the party’s campaign squarely lies on Virbhadra Singh. A redeeming feature is that the Congress is back in power in the neighbouring Punjab after a gap of ten years and the support of Chief Minister Captain Amarinder Singh, who is a close relative of Virbhadra Singh, will come in handy in electioneering.
Octogenarian Virbhadra Singh is the best bet for the Congress but his own future is uncertain in view of the ongoing cases of corruption against him and his family members. In fact, the matter is at an advanced stage and the CBI court has already summoned him.
The BJP will try to exploit the situation to its advantage and this became quite evident from the tone and content of PM Narendra Modi’s speech at the rally during which he repeatedly emphasised that the BJP would provide a clean and honest government to the people who were fed up of the corrupt Congress regime. He also referred to emerging “youth power” and the role it could play in changing the face of the country.
Both Modi and Shah left the cadres guessing about the leadership issue but their focus on honesty, clean image and youth power provided an indication that the party will bring in new faces at all levels as has been the case in various other states where elections were held recently. The indications are that the party may not project any face in the ensuing polls, though Amit Shah maintained that he has not taken any decision on the matter as yet. Insiders maintain that going by the approach adopted by Shah in various other states a revamp of leadership is on the cards. The party has a strong second line of leadership and transition will be easy. Besides Union health minister J.P. Nadda, who seems to be the automatic choice keeping in view his seniority and stature, there are other leaders like Jai Ram Thakur and Suresh Bhardwaj, and the name of Ajai Jamwal, who is from the RSS, is also being mentioned by party leaders. The possibility of a surprise pick like Yogi Adityanath will always be there.
The party cadres are no longer worried about the leadership issue as they are confident of Modi magic taking the party to the winning post. However, senior leaders and aspirants for party tickets are in a piquant situation, they are playing safe and not siding with any leader openly.
A clear picture will start emerging once the new party in-charge Mangal Pandey, who is scheduled to visit the state shortly, takes over. BJP’s ground-level preparations will begin thereafter. The huge crowd at the rally and the inspiring speech of Narendra Modi infused new life in the party cadres.The party had set a target of winning 50-plus seats in the 68member Vidhan Sabha but the party leaders are now hopeful of bagging more than 60seats in view of the massive response of the people.
The deferring of elections to the Shimla Municipal Corporation has not helped the cause of the Congress. The BJP has found an issue to whip the Congress and it is alleging that the move was deliberate as the Congress feared defeat in the polls. The winds of change that swept Uttar Pradesh and Uttarakhand have entered the hill state and the days of the Virbhadra Singh government seem to be numbered.