Himachal Pardesh is going to polls to elect 68 members for its Vidhan Sabha on November 4. At present, BJP is firmly in the saddle at Shimla. The three-decade-old continuous practice is of ruling this tiny hill state by BJP and Congress turn by turn. Hoping to keep this practice alive Congress is waiting eagerly to snatch the reins of power in the state. Five time Chief Minister, Congress state president Virbhadra Singh, erstwhile ruler of the small Himalayan state Rampur Bushahar, is leading the Congress army, but unfortunately not from the front. Present Chief Minister Prem Kumar Dhumal of Bharatiya Janata Party seems to be all set to halt this three-decade-old tradition of rotational raj.
BJP entrenched its roots in this hilly state in 1977 when elections for the Vidhan Sabha were held after the dark period of Emergency. At that time Jana Sangh waged a long battle against the atrocities of the Emergency regime of Congress. This struggle was aptly rewarded when Janata Party (in Himachal Pardesh it was Jana Sangh for all practical purposes) won 53 seats out of 68 and cornered 49 per cent of the total votes polled. Congress shrank to nine seats.
Five years later in 1982 fight was nearly a draw, when BJP got 29 seats and Congress was a little better with 31. Possibility of forming a BJP government was there, but some hard bargaining was required with some independents. Shanta Kumar, the then BJP supremo in the state and a principled man in his own right, had refused to chase this purchase game. Congress, however, managed the majority and formed the government. The year 1985 was a setback for Bharatiya Janata Party, which shrank to seven seats while Congress captured 58 seats getting 55.46 per cent of total votes polled.
But this was the last page of golden era of Congress in Himachal Pardesh. Now it has become almost clear that the two-party system has been firmly established in the state. A few selected pockets of the leftist forces in merged areas of Himachal Pardesh have also lost their sheen in the process. In 1990 BJP turned the tide and got 46 seats pushing the Congress back to 1977 period, Congress got only nine seats. But in 1993, Congress beat the BJP with the same stick. BJP was reduced to mere eight seats while Congress got 52.
Again in 1998 it was a draw match between both BJP and Congress, getting 31 seats each. Difference of votes polled was merely 4.9 per cent. BJP had contested this election under the leadership of Narendra Modi, then in charge of BJP affairs in Himachal Pardesh. But soon five members of Himachal Vikas Party joined BJP. Strangely the then Governor invited Virbhadra Singh of Congress party to form the government. As it was expected Singh had to resign after some days when the first session of the state assembly was summoned. BJP formed the government, but after change of guard Prof. Prem Kumar Dhumal was in the saddle this time. Shanta-era in state BJP came to an end. Then came 2003. Though BJP lost the power, it was not decimated to poor seven or eight seats as was the past practice. BJP got 16 seats while Congress got 43. Difference of total votes polled between these two parties was 5.62 per cent. 2007 proved just opposite. BJP got 41 seats and Congress succeeded to reach the mark of 23. Difference of total votes polled this time was 4.24 per cent. From these past performances the message becomes clear—near about five per cent swing of votes can seal the fate of the one or the other party.
But this time Congress is facing odds of all types in the election battle. Any keen observer of state politics can well understand that Virbhadra Singh is not the first choice of Sonia Gandhi. Congress in the state is a divided house vertically and horizontally. Former state president Kaul Singh Thakur, central minister Anand Sharma and daughter-in-law of the late Swami Satyanand, Vidya Stokes want Virbhadra Singh’s hands tied at the back for this battle. Virbhadra Singh facing all types of corruption charges in the court of law was shunted out from the central cabinet sometime back. But strangely, Mr Singh embraced the same Vijay Singh Mankotia, former BSP state president, who provided ample evidence to nail him in the court. He not only admitted Mankotia in the Congress party but also offered him a ticket from Shahpur constituency.
This act of Mr Singh not only puts him in spot in the wider public perception, but also provides enough masala to gossip mongers, regarding his corruption-related stories. Perhaps this was Mr Singh’s strategy to keep Mr Mankotia silent but now when new cases of financial bungling are surfacing in the media everyday, he is threatening media persons openly. This behaviour of Virbhadra Singh is causing heavy damage to the Congress’s prospects in the state. Perhaps the depression provoked Mr Singh in Hamirpur to proclaim in the public that he is a born king. When Sonia Gandhi came to address a public rally in Mandi city along with this born king, the historical Paddal Maidan was half empty.
Congress is harping on the anti-incumbency factor against the BJP but intolerable mehangai and increasing prices of essential commodities have created an anti-incumbency wave against the Central government. Congress men find it difficult to answer the querries of aam aadami in public rallies regarding steep price rise. It has put Congress in a defensive mode.
Traditionally old Himachal comprising mainly Shimla and Sirmour districts is considered a strong bastion of Congress. Prof Prem Kumar Dhumal, a shrewd politician in his own right, after putting hard labour for five long years, made great inroads in this once Congress bastion. Sometime back two bye-elections were held in the Rohru constituency of Shimla district and Renuka constituency of Sirmaur district. BJP trounced the Congress candidates in both these constituencies. Even Dhumal’s detractors were surprised but the message was sent home to Congress party that old Himachal is not a so safe zone for Congress.
BJP is campaigning on a positive note and going to the voters on its development plan. State government has received 72 awards in five years for the good work done in different fields of governance. Seasonal crops have been included in the agriculture insurance plan. Atal Swasth Yojna is providing medical facilities at the doorsteps in the far-flung areas of hilly terrain. Government is providing subsidised ration to BPL card-holders and free ration to any person above 65 years of age who have no one to look after them.
Shanta Kumar was called Paniwala Mukhya Mantri; now Prof Shumal has come to be known as Sadak Wala Mukhya Mantri. New roads measuring 3400 km and 260 new bridges have been constructed. A total of 19 per cent of the state budget has been allocated for the education sector. The literacy rate has jumped to 83 per cent mark, next only to Kerala. Prof Dhumal is confident of accomplishing his mission repeat.
In the early days of the election campaign Congress is hoping on the media reports of so-called differences between Dhumal and Shanta Kumar. It seems that BJP has resolved the differences and now both Dhumal and Shanta Kumar are putting a united front. By putting almost 15 new faces in the fray Himachal BJP is doing a Narendra Modi strategy in the state. On the other hand, Sonia Gandhi did give the baton to Virbhadra Singh but only hesitatingly, as when the turn of ticket distribution came Mr Singh hardly managed to put 25 or so of his supporters in the fray. A major chunk of the tickets was cornered by his bitter opponents in the party, i.e. Kaul Singh Thakur and Anand Sharma. According to Congress insiders if Virbhadra Singh succeeds to cross the 34 mark in the 68-member Vidhan Sabha, Sonia Gandhi most probably will do a Bhupinder Singh Hooda or Vijay Bahuguna in Himachal Pradesh.
It may be remembered that Bhajanlal was instrumental in winning the Haryana election for Congress, but when the time came to elect the chief minister he was unceremoniously sidelined and Bhupinder Singh Hooda, a backbencher, was crowned. At this ripe age, Virbhadra Singh seems reluctant to hatch the eggs of the opponent group’s cuckoo in his nest. Cornered by Sonia Gandhi and Kaul Singh Thakur on one side and corruption scandals on the other, and apprehension of a Bhupinder Singh Hooda act being done on him, Virbhadra Singh may be provoked to crack these unhatched eggs of his opponent group in Congress in his nest. Definitely this will prove fatal to the Congress and helpful to the BJP in its mission-repeat campaign.
By Kuldipchand Agnihotri From Shimla