Himachal Pradesh 2022 — Advantage BJP?
Unlike previous elections, the BJP is not a divided house this time; at least in public.
The Congress election machinery seems lacking in enthusiasm on the ground, almost disinterested.
And after an initial blitz in the middle of the year, the AAP too appears to have read the writing on the wall.
The Election Commission of India (ECI) has announced that Himachal Pradesh would go to the polls on 12 November, with the counting of votes set for 8 December.
Though it is a state of less than 70 lakh people, elections are rather fascinating for a combination of factors that is not seen in most states in India:
a disproportionate influence of erstwhile royal families
huge swing votes driven by candidate-loyalties
the flip of government every five years.
The Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) has said that it will fight to ensure that Jai Ram Thakur becomes the chief minister again.
While the Congress has not announced any chief ministerial face, the leadership of Pratibha Singh, the wife of former chief minister and Congress leader Virbhadra Singh, stands as a signal of sorts.
For a while, it seemed that the Congress would have come back to power in the usual stream of things.
However, recent inductions by the BJP of former state working president of the Congress, Harsh Mahajan or former Union minister Sukh Ram’s grandson, Ashray Sharma, serve perhaps as an indicator of Congress not winning the election this time around, and effecting a break from past trends.
Given Ashray Sharma’s family antecedents of being ‘mausam vaigyaniks’ (colloquial phrase for having a good sense of which way the political winds are blowing), there is a certain degree of assurance being put behind this claim by people.
This is a rather disappointing situation for the Congress.
While the Congress had managed to keep its votes intact in 2017, the BJP had managed to break through the third bloc’s votes to take a significant lead, especially in upper Himachal areas of Mandi, which serve as a deal maker in a tight contest.
Aashray Sharma being from Mandi, same as Jai Ram Thakur, is being seen as a sign that the BJP has managed to recover lost ground following the victory of Pratibha Singh in the Mandi Lok Sabha bypolls.
Sympathy has not necessarily come to the aid of Pratibha, who has failed to rally the party behind her since her elevation to the state unit’s presidency.
Moreover, suggestions of her son Vikramaditya Singh’s larger profile have not gone down well with several senior leaders of the party.
Interestingly, even Mahajan comes from the upper Himachal region of Chamba, which may be seen as a wind of change in the broader upper Himachal region.
The Congress had actually managed to breach the lower Himachal region of Hamirpur, with their candidate Rajinder Rana defeating Prem Kumar Dhumal in his stronghold.
However, the BJP seems confident that it will manage to win a large chunk of seats in the region. This speaks volumes of the Congress’s disinterest in the electoral process.
In a state where victory margins are usually under 1,500 votes, the lack of visible effort by Congress workers, as alluded to by both Mahajan and Ashray Sharma, will prove to be problematic, as personal connect is essential to getting votes in smaller constituencies.
What is interesting is that both Anurag Thakur and J P Nadda, who hail from Himachal Pradesh, have seemingly thrown their weight behind Jai Ram Thakur, keeping their own ambitions, if any, of CM-ship to themselves.
Their supporters have also not made any noises on the subject, indicating the direction given by the powers that be within the BJP of preventing factionalism at all costs.
Factionalism has always hit BJP more than the Congress within the state, as witnessed in the past elections, and for a change, the party looks a united front this time.
This is a breather for Jai Ram Thakur too, given how his image as a good-man-but-poor-administrator had been plaguing the party for long.
The government had nothing necessarily to show for its performance in the state and had repeatedly tried to piggyback on the central government’s schemes like Jal Jeevan, Ujjwala and projects like Bulk Drug Parks and the rail network announcements.
The government had also faced the anger of the upper castes in the upper Himachal region over the issue of the Savarna Aayog announcement they had made and the demands of government employee unions to reinstate the fiscally ruinous Old Pension Scheme.
That the trend of parties alternating in government seems to be getting bucked this time goes more to the credit of the ineffectiveness of the Congress and the personal popularity that Prime Minister Narendra Modi enjoys among the people of Himachal. The BJP had 67 per cent of the state’s votes during the 2019 Lok Sabha elections.
The Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) had been putting much weight behind their Himachal Pradesh campaign in the initial days, with Arvind Kejriwal and Bhagwant Mann visiting the state more than once.
However, their absence from the state since the month of July is perhaps an indicator of the party leadership reading their lack of opportunity within the state.
Clearly, there is an attempt to prevent loss of face within the state unlike say in Gujarat, where they see themselves rising in the near future.
However, AAP continues to be a problem for the Congress, and if the lack of enthusiasm within the Congress prevails, one may see a significant chunk of ground cadre shifting loyalties towards AAP to ‘fight the BJP’ on the ground.
For now, it is advantage BJP. Unless something really problematic surfaces for the party, it is hard to see them lose from here.
The Congress, however, would have to rally itself to at least secure its turf and not cede space to AAP.
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