Will Himachal Pradesh repeat its anti-incumbency trend?
New Delhi: The last time the hill state of Himachal Pradesh voted the party in power back to the government was in 1985, when then Congress chief minister Virbhadra Singh had returned to occupy the chair. A good 32 years, later Singh will be hoping to repeat the performance. But as counting for the 68 seats begins, he has both the burden of history and the exit polls pitted against him, for both portend the Congress’s loss. Waiting for his hour under the sun will be the man who has shared the chief minister’s seat with Singh for the past 25 years – Prem Kumar Dhumal of the BJP.
It was a battle between these two veterans of state politics this time as well. While the Congress had decided to go into the polls under Singh’s leadership at the very outset, BJP had delayed its decision on projecting Dhumal as the chief ministerial face till the eleventh hour.
An impressive 74% turnout on November 9 had made many believe that the saffron party was all set to upset the Congress applecart. While the odds may be stacked against him, it would be interesting to note the kind of fight the ‘Raja’ put up. He was, after all, facing not only anti-incumbency but also allegations of corruption as well as cases alleging he has assets disproportionate to his known sources of income this time.
Corruption, women’s security were main issues for BJP
In fact, the corruption cases against Singh and his family members being probed by the CBI and the Enforcement Directorate were a major issue in these polls, with Prime Minister Narendra Modi leading the BJP charge on the issue, describing Singh during the party’s campaign in Bilaspur as a “zamanati” chief minister or one who was out on bail. The BJP has also attacked the state government by using the Gudia gangrape case of a student and the subsequent killing of an accused by the police to illustrate the deteriorating law and order situation.
The saffron party, which pushed a number of senior leaders, including president Amit Shah, to campaign in the state, also talked about issues of lack of public transport, women’s empowerment, the state not preparing the detailed project reports for 61 national highways which were only proposed by the Centre in 2015, the issue of shortage of medical facilities and doctors, and the encroachment of public land.
Congress brings up BJP’s demonetisation, GST decisions
On the other hand, the Congress accused the BJP of causing hardship to the people through demonetisation and then implementation of the Goods and Service Tax. While some of these issues may have had a local appeal, most including price realisation of farm products, electricity for agriculture and irrigation programmes, facilities for job training, traffic congestion and spending on spending on schools, roads and health facilities had wider appeal. Both the parties also made promises about solving the issue of the monkey menace. Apart from being bitten by monkeys, who have been declared vermin, the state also suffers over Rs 150 crore loss on account of damage to crops by them each year.
Both the parties have also claimed to have done significant work in the state. While Singh has been claiming unprecedented work including that pertaining to construction of rural roads and modification of schools, the BJP has been speaking about opening new medical colleges in Mandi, Chamba and Sirmaur. In fact, much of this credit is being claimed by Union health minister J.P. Nadda, who had moved to central politics after falling out with Dhumal, in whose cabinet he was a minister.
The counting today will determine the fate of 60 sitting MLAs who are among the 337 candidates in fray. Apart from the two main parties, which are contesting all the seats, others which had thrown their hat in the ring were BSP which contested 42 seats, CPI(M) 14, Swabhiman Party and Lok Gathbandhan Party six each, and the CPI three.
Some key contests to watch out for
The seats to watch out for would be Arki, from where Singh is contesting. A six-term chief minister, he has also served as a Union minister in the past. Having first become a chief minister in 1983, Singh has since become the second-longest-serving chief minister after Yashwant Singh Parmar.
Singh this time changed his constituency from Shimla Rural to Arki to make way for his son and Youth Congress president Vikramaditya, who is now contesting from the seat he vacated. Putting all its might behind Singh, the Congress this time did not strictly enforce its “one family, one ticket” code and allowed Vikramaditya Singh and Champa Thakur, daughter of Kaul Singh Thakur, the health and family welfare minister in Singh’s cabinet, to contest. Thakur is contesting the election from the Mandi assembly constituency.
Champa Thakur would be taking on Anil Sharma, who was minister in the Singh government and is son of former Congress leader Sukh Ram. Since Sharma and his father had changed camps and walked over to the BJP just a month ahead of the polls, this would be an interesting election to watch.
Kaul Singh Thakur is contesting from the Darang assembly constitutency, which will also be keenly followed.
Another Congress leader of note whose fortunes would be closely tracked is G.S. Bali, the food, civil supplies and consumer affairs minister, who is contesting from the Nagrota constituency.
From the BJP, the biggest candidate is Dhumal, who was named the chief ministerial candidate by the party just days before polling. He would be eyeing the chief minister’s post for the third time. As such all eyes would be on the Sujanpur seat from where he contested after leaving his earlier seat of Hamirpur.
Another important seat for the party is Una, from where the BJP’s state unit president, Satpal Singh Satti, a three-term MLA, is contesting.
Pollsters would also be watching the performance of former BJP rebel Narendra Thakur who had quit the party in 2003 and fought assembly elections against Prem Kumar Dhumal in 2009 and then the Lok Sabha elections from Hamirpur against Dhumal’s son Anurag Thakur. However, on his return to the BJP, the party has this time fielded him from Hamirpur, the seat vacated by Dhumal.
Another heavyweight contestant of BJP would be two-time former minister Narendra Bragta from Jubbal-kotkhai constituency who had lost to Rohit Talwar – grandson of former CM Thakur Ram Lal – of the Congress by 9,095 votes in the 2012 assembly elections. Since in 2007 Bragta had defeated Talwar, this time the contest would also be a sort of tie-breaker for them.