The negligible presence of Muslims and the absence of any single dominant political caste are, inter alia, factors responsible for the Bharatiya Janata Party’s defeat in the Himachal Pradesh assembly polls. Here is a state where the Congress got the better off the saffron party without putting in any extraordinary effort.
Emotive issues fail to work
As the BJP has been voted out of power in a state with over 95.17% Hindu population, it means that the electorate voted on the basis of the government’s performance and not on emotive issues. The “double-engine government” has been derailed here.
Himachal has only 2.18% Muslims and 1.16% Sikhs. Thus there was no scope for whipping up communal passions. Even Uttar Pradesh chief minister Yogi Adityanath, who addressed several public meetings, was not at his rhetorical best. Issues like the Uniform Civil Code could not work in this Himalayan state.
Himachal is a unique state – and Uttarakhand is the other one – where the upper castes dominate politics. About one-third of the population is said to be of Thakurs (Rajputs) and 18% Brahmins. The state has about 25.2% Scheduled Caste and 5.7% Scheduled Tribe voters. The Other Backward Classes form 13.5% of the electorate.
Interestingly, percentage-wise, Himachal has the second highest concentration of Dalits after Punjab (32.9%). Yet the Kanshi Ram-Mayawati led Bahujan Samaj Party could not make any big inroads here. The BJP has failed to win their votes this time. In 2017, it won 13 out of the 17 SC reserved and two out of three ST reserved seats.
Once again like Uttarakhand, no third political party could grow here, though there always existed the scope for the growth of a Dalit party.
Though the BJP is generally considered to be a party of the upper castes, it has been voted out of power in Himachal where half of the population belongs to this social group.
No single caste domination
Apart from this, there is nothing here like the Jat-dominated Indian National Lok Dal and Rashtriya Lok Dal, Yadav-led Samajwadi Party and Rashtriya Janata Dal, Jatav-controlled Bahujan Samaj Party, and Maratha-representing Shiv Sena. So, there was no scope for creating a political strategy to keep one dominant caste away by ganging up the rest, as the BJP has done successfully in Haryana, Uttar Pradesh, Bihar and Maharashtra.
At the same time, the BJP will have to devise a strategy to win an election in the state where there is a very small Muslim population.
The winds of change started blowing several months ago, when the BJP lost the Mandi Lok Sabha and three assembly by-elections in November 2021. In one of the assembly seats, it was not even the runner up. The loss in Mandi came as a wake- up call, as in the 2019 parliamentary election the saffron party defeated the Congress by over four lakh votes. Incidentally, Mandi is the home turf of chief minister Jairam Thakur.
In neighbouring Punjab too, the BJP failed to grow strong because of the near-absence of Muslim votes. Here too, Jats – who form over one-fifth of the population – are the politically dominant caste, but their domination is spread over different parties and not confined to any one. Besides Jat Sikhs there are some Jat Hindus too. Thus the social equation limits the BJP’s expansion.
Different saffron strategy in Karnataka, Gujarat
Curiously, in Karnataka, which goes to polls in summer next year, the BJP is going all the way to keep Lingayats, the biggest upper caste group, in good humour. This politically dominant caste has a population of 14-15%. The presence of a substantial Muslim population (12.92%) helps the saffron party to attract other votes.
Similarly, in Gujarat, the BJP since the late 1980s started courting Patels (Patidars) to cancel out the impact of the strong Kshtriya (Koli), Harijan, Adivasi and Muslim (KHAM) combination woven by Madhavsinh Solanki of the Congress in 1985. The party then won 149 seats – a record which has been broken this time.
The BJP started wooing the alienated Patels, said to be around 12-14% of the population. They are a socially, politically and economically influential caste, with a strong presence abroad.
Apart from this, there is enough of a Muslim population (9.67%) to polarise society in a state which has a history of communal tensions. Ahmedabad was rocked by infamous riots in 1969 and in the 1980s; Surat saw large-scale violence after the demolition of the Babri Masjid in 1992.
Three decades later, KHAM lies shattered as the BJP consolidated itself. The presence of a sizeable number of economically well-off Muslims also helped the BJP.
Congress wins without putting in much effort
The Congress managed to register victory notwithstanding the fact that Sonia and Rahul Gandhi did not take part in the electioneering – only Priyanka addressed several rallies.
Besides, the party had in July 2021 lost its most prominent face, Virbhadra Singh, who had served as the chief minister six times. Not only that, it did not fully utilise the services of former Union minister Anand Sharma, a member of the G-23.
Contrary to this, Prime Minister Narendra Modi, home minister Amit Shah, Uttar Pradesh chief minister Yogi Adityanath and other BJP top brass campaigned vigorously. The national president of the BJP, J.P. Nadda, Union minister Anurag Thakur and film personality Kangana Ranaut come from this Himalayan state.
The opposition parties had already accused the Election Commission of scheduling polling dates in Gujarat and Himachal Pradesh in such a way that they facilitated the BJP top echelon to concentrate separately on the two states. If polling could not take place simultaneously in the two states, how can it be possible for the Election Commission to hold parliamentary, assembly and local bodies poll together? This demand has repeatedly been made by the BJP.
The bottom line is that in Himachal, the state Congress trounced the national leadership of the mighty BJP.
Soroor Ahmed is a Patna-based freelance journalist.