Bitter battle in the Queen of Hills

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Bitter battle in the Queen of Hills

A two-horse race between the BJP and the Congress is being fought in the hill State of Himachal Pradesh. But local issues dominate the broader contours

One of the most fiercely contested elections in recent times, Himachal Pradesh is one classic case of democracy where anti-incumbency seems to be the sole determining factor in the November 9 Assembly poll.

If the Virbhadra Singh Government is voted out of power on December 18, when the results are to be announced, it would be largely due to anti-incumbency as the State has been voting out the incumbent Government for the last over three decades without fail.

Not that the six-time Chief Minister has done a lot of development work in the last five years; and he needs another term to complete his work. That’s not the case. Himachal Pradesh is one State where successive Governments — the BJP and the Congress — both have done remarkably well, touched the developmental chord and consistently strived to improve the social and economic indices of the State.

So much so that whoever has been in power, they have focussed on core areas like roads, schools, health, transport, women empowerment, horticulture, agriculture tourism etc. Of course, a lot of work still needs to be done as development is an ongoing phenomenon but it is pleasant to find that there is no politicisation of development in the hill State unlike its neighbours. 

Ask the villagers and they will tell you that the BJP started that work and the Congress completed it or the Congress Government started a particular work and the next BJP Government ensured that it was complete as per the scheduled time. Many villagers do not even associate any work with any political party, simply saying that the Government did it. “As long as we get our old age pension on time and other schemes, we are not even bothered to find out who funds the scheme — Centre or the State,” said, Daulat Ram, a village head in Una constituency.

Rani, who goes by the first name, and who runs a shop on the highway from Hamirpur to Una, is satisfied with governance as her expectations have been met broadly. “Whatever scheme is announced, either by the Centre or the State, comes here and the villagers get the benefit. There is so much awareness now that whoever is in power in Shimla ensures that we are not left out,” she added. 

The general refrain in Himachal Pradesh is that “it’s a well administered State” and whoever has been in power, has more or less continued the work done by the previous regime, except a few exceptions here and there. Comparison with other States, like neighbouring Punjab, would be apt as polity is completely divided by two adversarial political power structures of the Shiromani Akali Dal and the Congress, where one upmanship is the norm and verbally tearing each other apart is practiced without fail.

Not in Himachal Pradesh, where good work by other party keeps on going and the political rival, too, has little or no issues with it. Even when the local but rival Himachal leaders attack each other, it has little to do with conviction and more to do with political expediency and demands of their respective high command.

Travelling in the hill State during the election was an eye-opener. The bitter acrimony, which the rival political parties — the BJP and the Congress —engage in at the macro level, is absent at the micro level. High decibel campaign doesn’t really affect the voters living in areas outside the urban habitats and largely they get influenced and go by door-to-door canvassing and personal touch of candidates.

Simple Himachalis in the hinterland are convinced more by their friendly neighborhood candidate and their accessibility than the helicopter flying tall leaders making tall promises or leveling all sorts of accusations against their rivals.

During my travel during elections, I came across numerous tea stall owners, cloth shops, dhaba owners, daily need shops, heads of gram panchayats etc, where the local MLA comes in the evening either for a drink, tea or a simple chat all throughout his or her tenure of five years. Most of the people I interacted with in the villages and the hamlets adjoining the State highways and major district roads, personally knew their MLA had met them and interacted with them on numerous occasions.

“That’s a way of political life. This is how you conduct your politics here,” said Ramesh Singh, a dhaba owner in Arki constituency. He is a school friend of the sitting MLA Govind Sharma of the BJP and has been voting for the lotus for the last two terms of Govind Sharma.

As his friend, Sharma is not contesting this time, he would rather go with Chief Minister Virbhadra Singh who is contesting from Arki for the first time after leaving his Shimla (Rural) seat for his son Vikramaditya Singh.  “I am what you can say, a floating voter. I take a call at the appropriate time. Had Govind Singh been contesting, it would have been extremely difficult for me but I would have gone with my friend,” he added. Sharma is a regular at the dhaba.

There were few takers for the allegations of corruption levelled by top BJP leaders against Chief Minister Virbhadra Singh. “Corruption is a non-issue in Himachal Pradesh. Who would believe that Raja (as Virbhadra Singh is known), who has ancestral wealth running into multiples of crores, would indulge in corruption amounting to five crore rupees or something,” said a professor in Himachal Pradesh University who did not want to be named.

Another Congress leader added  that the problem was in the “unprofessional accountants of Singh who did a shoddy work” while filing his tax returns. They are not willing to buy the charge of BJP leaders that a Raja would indulge in such a small corruption. “People simply laugh it away,” said the Congress leader, when asked about the main election plank of the BJP.

The professor, who is a fence sitter in the politically surcharged State in the run-up to the election, does not have a grudge against the BJP either. “See, the Congress raised the issues of demonetisation and the Goods and Services Tax in the elections. These issues are of no consequence to the people of the State,” he said, adding that “the biggest failure of the Congress remained finding issues which could find traction with the people”.

The professor said that in a relatively prosperous State, the level of expectations keeps increasing. “People keep voting out the incumbent Government as expectations are not met. In fact, no Government can ever meet all expectations and that is where they vote out one Government and bring out the other,” he added.

Congress leaders, who claimed to have toured the State and who were managing the polls from the State party headquarters on Cart Road, said it was a “normal election” unlike the “wave election” of 2014, where the BJP resoundingly won all the four parliamentary seats in the State. They kept on insisting that Modi is no longer a strong factor in Himachal Pradesh.

BJP leaders disagree. “There is no proof so far to suggest that the Modi wave is on decline. We just won a landslide in Uttar Pradesh earlier this year and that was entirely due to Modi magic,” said a BJP leader in Hotel Combermere, the headquarters of the party during the Assembly poll.

“We have a triple advantage in Himachal Pradesh this time — charisma of Modi, chief ministerial face Prem Kumar Dhumal and anti-incumbency,” summed up the BJP greenhorn, who claims to be well acquainted with the broader socio-political current of the State.

So, there you have it. The political trend in Himachal Pradesh is slightly different and it would be difficult to see it from the prism of macro factors that determine the trend in the rest of the northern States. Local factors, local leaders and localised issues seem to dominate the broader contours and that makes the election all the more exciting.

(The writer is Senior Editor, The Pioneer, Chandigarh)

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