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Chandigarh: Ahead of the November 12 state polls in Himachal Pradesh, the Opposition Congress and Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) have been wooing government employees to corner the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), given their numbers among the voters.
Both opposition parties have been making a slew of promises, including the retoration of the old pension scheme (OPS), ensuring transparent recruitment and settling arrears of government employees. Employees allege that the current regime could not process the arrears due to the economic crisis it led the state into.
Leader of the Opposition Mukesh Agnihotri also recently said that if voted into power, the Congress would order a probe into recruitments carried out during the BJP government’s rule. He alleged major discrepancies in posts filled in the past few years under the current regime.
On the other hand, the ruling BJP has been combatant, attacking the Opposition for what it calls the “misleading of employees” for political benefits.
BJP state president Suresh Kashyap said in a recent media statement that his party’s government had given top priority to employees and resolved many of their pending issues.
So, what makes the employees so important that every party is trying to woo them?
The answer lies in their sheer strength. More than 2.25 lakh individuals are employed with the Himachal Pradesh government, and there are about 1.90 lakh pensioners.
This is a huge number for a small state like Himachal, where the total size of the electorate is not more than 55 lakh. Along with their dependents, one can say with some degree of certainty that these employees account for 10%-15% of the total number of voters in the state.
In a state where elections are closely contested (20 out of 68 seats were decided by less than 3,000 votes in 2017), the employees’ votes, therefore, becomes crucial for any political party to win a majority of seats.
That is the reason why their concerns currently top the political agenda of every political party. It is especially true in the Opposition camp, which has been underlining that employees had got a raw deal under the BJP rule, even as the latter dismissed them as political opportunism and vote bank politics.
One issue of government employees that has taken the limelight ahead of the November 12 polls is the promise of Congress and AAP to restore the old pension scheme, which concerns almost 50% of employees, who, for months have been protesting, against the BJP government over the issue.
Old and new pension schemes
Those recruited in Himachal Pradesh after 2004 are covered under New Pension Scheme (NPS).
Pradeep Thakur, president of Himachal NPS Sangarsh Morcha, told The Wire that the current NPS system is not as rewarding as the old pension scheme. He emphasised that the old pension scheme must be restored for employees to live comfortably after retirement.
Congress was the first to throw its weight behind the employees. It even cited examples of other two Congress-ruled states – Rajasthan and Chhattisgarh – which restored OPS for their employees. The Congress party in Himachal has been promising that it will restore and replicate the same within 10 days of government formation.
AAP too recently raised the issue after its party government approved OPS in Punjab. Soon after Punjab chief minister Bhagwant Mann made the announcement, AAP national convener and Delhi chief minister Arvind Kejriwal went on to tweet that the New Pension Scheme (NPS) – which replaced OPS in 2004 – was an injustice to the government employees.
“We have restored it in Punjab. We will now do it in Himachal and Gujarat if we form the governments there,” Kejriwal tweeted.
Hitting back at the opposition, Himachal chief minister Jai Ram Thakur had recently questioned if the Congress was in favour of the OPS, why was the scheme stopped when it was in power and what stopped it from reviving during its last tenure.
Thakur said the OPS introduced in Congress-ruled states of Chhattisgarh and Rajasthan had not been implemented in its true spirit, and the chief ministers of the two states recently had said that they needed support from the BJP government at the centre to implement it.
He also said AAP’s decision in Punjab was also a gamble to win elections. Both parties were misleading employees in a desperate bid to win the election, he alleged.
Meanwhile, OPS is not the only issue inviting tug of war between the opposition and the BJP. The opposition is also banking on the disenchantment among a section of employees over the delay in payment of pending payscale arrears besides non-payment of dearness allowance for 2022.
They are also making the most of the BJP’s failure to make free and fair recruitments. In May this year, the state had to cancel constable recruitment due to paper leaks, which came as a huge setback for employees, desperately looking for government jobs.
Political analyst Ramesh Chauhan told The Wire that, unlike other states, there is a huge demand for government jobs, particularly, in lower Himachal like Kangra, Una, Hamirpur, Chamba and Bilaspur.
According to Chauhan, in those districts, agriculture is not viable for livelihood and industrialisation did not take place locally, which makes government recruitment very important. However, he says, the recruitment has not been up to a favourable level.
He further says one can’t deny that there is resentment among employees over a number of issues. “But the question is whether the opposition will be able to capitalise on it. And, how would the BJP counter the opposition’s criticism to retain its power,” he adds.