Himachal Polls: As Central Leadership Neglect Ails Congress, BJP, AAP Pull Out All Stops

While the BJP has deployed its national leadership to campaign for a successive term, several top AAP leaders are making a beeline to the hill state to capture the space vacated by the Congress.

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New Delhi: With the Assembly elections fast approaching in Himachal Pradesh, Congress, which is the principal opposition party, is yet to get its act together. Failure of the central leadership to participate in the poll campaign and take the state unit into confidence, and lack of funds have highlighted that the party could be heading towards a dismal performance in the ensuing polls. It took none other than the state unit president Pratibha Singh to point out what ails the party, especially in expressing displeasure with the central leadership.

On the other hand, senior leaders of both the BJP, which is trying to become the first party since 1985 to return to power in the state, and the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP), which is seeking to upstage the Congress – as it did in Delhi and Punjab before – have already visited the state and started their campaign.

Multiple challenges for Congress 

The manner in which Congress has handled the situation thus far has piqued many. The party appears not to have learnt its lessons from the neighbouring hill state of Uttarakhand, which went to polls earlier this year. There too the BJP managed to return to power as the Congress battled its own in the initial phases of the election. Things had only smoothened out after former chief minister Harish Rawat had rushed to Delhi in late 2021 to complain about some central observers and leaders.

But the differences within the state party leadership and the fact that overall Congress is facing a leadership crisis at the central level led to its defeat. Elbowing out anti-incumbency, the BJP had managed to return to power, albeit with a lower percentage of the popular vote.

In Himachal Pradesh too, the situation is no better for Congress. There are several factors working against it this time around.

At a Congress party meeting in Himachal Pradesh. Photo: Facebook/Pratibha Singh.

The biggest factor is the absence of former chief minister Virbhadra Singh, who passed away last year. He was a stalwart in state politics and was popularly referred to as ‘Raja Sahib’. He was a mass leader and the longest-serving chief minister of the state, who held the post on four different occasions. He was also elected to the Lok Sabha five times.

Following Singh’s death, his widow Pratibha Singh has been trying to script a return of the party in the state. However, she has been fighting an uphill battle. Singh was unhappy that party leaders Rahul Gandhi and Priyanka Vadra do not give time and importance to senior leaders and that is why dissatisfaction was growing within the party.

Also read: Will Pratibha Singh’s Appointment Paper Over Congress’s Leadership Vacuum in Himachal?

“Senior leaders want attention and someone who can listen to their grievances but they (the younger lot) don’t give attention to such leaders,” she said in an interview with a news portal. Incidentally, senior party leader Anand Sharma, who was counted in the G-23 or group of dissenters, within the Congress, had last month stepped down as chairman of the steering committee for the Himachal elections.

Singh also spoke about how another challenge for Congress was a shortage of funds. She said the party did not have the kind of resources the BJP possessed. However, despite the shortcomings, Singh was confident that AAP would not pose any threat to Congress due to the bipolar nature of the state politics.

This is where Singh’s assessment may go wrong to some extent. After its win in neighbouring Punjab, with which Himachal shares a long border and close cultural ties, the AAP is hoping to make a significant dent in the hill state. The party has traditionally risen in states where Congress has weakened. And, it smells an opportunity in Himachal Pradesh now.

AAP as an ‘alternative’

A few things may support AAP’s efforts in Himachal Pradesh. The Congress is on a decline and many people in Himachal Pradesh are looking at alternatives to it and the BJP. There are often references to giving it “a chance”.

The announcements by AAP of providing 300 units of free power per month and free education may also appeal to the economically weaker sections in particular. In all, AAP has announced 10 guarantees for the people, including a Rs 1,000 per month pension for every woman, an unemployment allowance and a free pilgrimage scheme for the elderly.

Aam Aadmi Party meeting in Himachal Pradesh. Photo: Facebook/Aam Aadmi Party Himachal Pradesh.

Several party leaders, including national convener and Delhi chief minister Arvind Kejriwal, Delhi deputy chief minister Manish Sisodia and Punjab chief minister Bhagwant Mann have already visited the state and addressed rallies there. The party is also trying to woo the Punjabi and Sikh voters in the state by sending its leaders from Punjab there.

Also read: Himachal Polls: With AAP’s Entry, BJP to Woo Youngsters to Battle Anti-Incumbency

AAP was also the first of the three major parties to announce its first list of candidates for the elections. It has already declared that it would be contesting all the 68 seats.

Congress may repeat all MLAs 

Meanwhile, Congress’ acting president Sonia Gandhi on Tuesday, September 27, convened a meeting of the Central Election Committee to decide on the candidates for the Himachal Pradesh elections. The party is now expected to announce its first list soon. The meeting was attended by Anand Sharma, Ambika Soni, Veerappa Moily, K.C. Venugopal, among others.

It is learnt that the party, which had won 21 seats in the last polls, has decided to repeat all the winning candidates. It may not follow the “one family, one ticket” rule and may rather choose to go by the winnability criteria alone.

Also read: Himachal Polls: Despite a Weak Opposition, BJP’s Biggest Rivals Are Mismanagement and Factionalism

BJP leaders make a beeline to Himachal

As for the BJP, which is terming its campaign “Mission Repeat”, it too has not announced any candidates thus far but its senior leaders including national president J.P. Nadda and Union minister Anurag Thakur, who hail from Himachal Pradesh, have been regularly visiting the state. Thakur is the son of former chief minister Prem Kumar Dhumal, who was overlooked by the party for the chief minister post in the last elections following his defeat in the Sujanpur constituency.

BJP National President JP Nadda with Himachal Pradesh Chief Minister Jai Ram Thakur during a public rally at Paonta Sahib, in Sirmaur district, Saturday, Aug. 20, 2022. Photo: PTI

The saffron party, which had won 44 seats in the last elections, has been pursuing the elections in great earnest. Prime Minister Narendra Modi formally launched the party’s campaign in the state with the Yuva Vijay Sankalp rally in Mandi on September 24. Though he was supposed to personally attend the rally, it was turned into a virtual event due to rains.

Modi made it known that the party would be targeting the youth in its bid to return to power. He said the youth have made up their mind to give the BJP another chance. He also assured that he would personally visit the district, which is the second largest in the state with 10 Assembly segments and is also home to chief minister Jai Ram Thakur.

With the Election Commission of India now stating that it would be deciding on the dates for polls in Himachal Pradesh keeping the snow season in mind, the state is expecting an announcement soon. The last time in 2017, the voting was held on November 9.