With less than 10 days of campaigning left in Himachal Pradesh, the countdown is definitely on for a keenly contested assembly election.
Chief Minister Jairam Thakur of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) is seeking to create history in the state by securing a second successive term.
The Congress, which was the predominant force in the state for the first four decades after Independence, is looking to make a comeback.
In the contest for the first time is the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP). And rounding up the fray is a sizeable array of smaller parties, influential independents, and voluble dissidents.
The provincial electoral history of Himachal Pradesh since 1982 is given in a table below. (See here for an electoral history of Himachal Pradesh in maps)
What are the factors at play, and what does the voting field look like?
A recent opinion poll by ABP-C-Voter says that the BJP will be returned with a healthy, if slightly diminished, majority, and that the AAP will get some votes, and perhaps a seat, at the expense of the Congress.
While this survey might well be right on seats, its vote shares and swings are too neat for comfort.
Readers may note that as per it, votes are expected to shift uniformly from the BJP to ‘Others’ (and not to the Congress or the AAP), while a significant portion of the Congress vote transfers seamlessly to only the AAP.
This is not representative of electoral dynamics on the ground. The AAP may get over 6 per cent of the vote share, but not this way. The survey’s vote shares may therefore be treated with some caution.
First, the BJP may suffer a marginal decline in vote share from 2017 because of anti-incumbency, but the principal beneficiary of that will be the Congress, rather than the ‘Others’.
The reason is that the BJP is facing internal dissent in over a dozen seats, where the principal political outfit which can take advantage of such dissension is the Congress.
Second, it is extremely doubtful that the ‘Others’ vote share would go back up to nearly 13 per cent, along with AAP polling nearly 7 per cent.
This is because the trend of the past few elections has been a secular decline in the non-Congress-non-BJP votes.
In fact, this writer’s assessment is that the ‘Others’ vote could, on the contrary, decline to around 8 per cent in 2022.
Third, while the AAP may get some votes in a few selected pockets, ground reports do not indicate any such exclusive surge from the Congress to the AAP as this survey suggests.
Fourth, the Congress vote share could reduce in 2022 because this is the first election it will be contesting in decades without its talisman and key vote-catcher — former chief minister Virbhadra Singh, who passed away in July 2021.
Now, his wife Pratibha did win a by-election to Mandi Lok Sabha seat in 2021, and his son Vikramaditya Singh is the sitting legislator for Shimla Rural assembly constituency, but neither has the ability to draw crowds and votes, or to run a sizzling campaign, like Virbhadra Singh could.
Therefore, the key beneficiary of his absence will be the BJP.
Fifth, according to some reports, the Jairam Thakur government’s decision to replace the state’s old pension scheme with a new National Pension Scheme could become an issue in the assembly elections.
Disaffection with the new scheme could impact the BJP because the proportion of retired and serving government officials is relatively larger in a state with a small population base.
Perhaps so, but as things stand, the BJP is capable of weathering a vote erosion of 3-4 per cent.
Sixth, is the rebel factor. This has been a perennial headache for political parties in the state, particularly so for incumbents.
Ground reports suggest that as many as 20 of the 68 assembly seats may be affected by defections and disgruntlement. But, as in all things electoral, the math is not a simple binary.
The BJP is facing internal dissonance in at least 14 seats, the Congress in three, and both in three more.
As a map of those seats afflicted by the rebel factor shows, their geographical spread spans the state.
Interestingly, though, the actual impact of these rebels is less than it is made out to be. Seven are in seats which the BJP is set to hold, four in seats the Congress should retain, and five are rank toss-ups — a total of 16.
This means that the Congress might, in higher probability, wrest just four seats on account of rebel dissent within the BJP.
That will not be enough to change the overall outcome, because the Congress needs a net gain of 14 seats to secure a majority (and that’s without counting the seats the BJP may gain on account of dissent within the Congress).
In addition, the BJP gained an average of 13 per cent vote share in these 20 seats from 2012 to 2017.
Most of these votes, roughly 12 per cent, came from ‘Others’, and reinforces this writer’s observation made in the second point above, that the ‘Others’ vote share will shrink further, as it continues to shift incrementally to the BJP.
In such a scenario, the more the AAP cuts into the Congress’s vote base, the more the BJP will gain.
Seventh, and overriding all of the above factors, is the BJP’s campaign strategy of a ‘double-engine sarkar’ — the concept that electing central and provincial governments from the same political party creates a multiplier effect to the implementation of both development and welfare policies.
Naysayers may sniff at this strategy, but the truth is that it resonates positively with the electorate, and is driven by the ‘Modi factor’, which is alive, widespread, and at work. It cannot be discounted.
Allied with these two aspects is a spill-over effect from the BJP’s stupendous showing in the 2019 general elections, when they polled 70 per cent, and led in every single one of the 68 assembly segments in Himachal Pradesh.
While it is true that people are beginning to vote overwhelmingly for the BJP during general elections in some states, and also, that they don’t vote as enthusiastically for the BJP during legislative elections, the fact remains that the BJP is expanding its vote base, by winning the vote from those who hadn’t voted for the BJP previously.
We saw this phenomenon manifest itself in Karnataka in 2019, in West Bengal and Assam in 2021, and in Uttar Pradesh and Goa in 2022. It will manifest itself again, and cannot be discounted, even if it is not so easily quantifiable in Himachal Pradesh at present.
Therefore, in conclusion, for the factors detailed above, the higher probability is that the BJP will secure a majority and a renewed mandate in the forthcoming Himachal Pradesh assembly elections.
All data from Election Commission of India website.
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