New Delhi: What prevented the Bharatiya Janata Party from realising its dream of ‘Mission Repeat’ in Himachal Pradesh: intelligent ticket distribution and heavy campaigning by the Congress, and some unwarranted political machinations by the saffron party.
As the exit polls had indicated, Congress’s campaigning close to polling day paid rich dividends for the party as it won 40 seats in the 68-member assembly. The BJP won just 25 seats as its development and double-engine plank failed to find enough favour with the electorate.
Price rise, difficulties faced by apple growers, and the BJP’s insistence on continuing with its new pension scheme – all these issues built a resistance against the party.
The saffron party’s vote share dropped from 48.79% in 2017 to 43% in 2022 – which means that out of every 100 voters, five people, who voted for the BJP last time, moved away. This also reflected in the sharp fall in its seats – from 44 in 2017 to just 25 this time.
The Congress, on the other hand, improved its vote share slightly from 41.68% in 2017 to 43.9% this time. However, this two percentage point gain was enough to provide it a complete majority in the House as it won 40 seats, up from 21 in 2017.
Overall, it was a close contest between the Congress and the BJP this time. While there was a 0.90 percentage point difference in the vote share across the state, in terms of the number of votes, Congress polled 37,974 votes more than the BJP across Himachal Pradesh.
Did AAP’s ‘withdrawal’ prevent a Gujarat-like outcome in HP?
The Congress should thank the Aam Aadmi Party for almost withdrawing from the elections after announcing its candidates for all the 68 seats in the state.
AAP received 1.10% votes and did not win any seat. Despite its senior leaders staying away from campaigning, AAP polled a total of 46,270 votes across the state.
Its performance in Gujarat, where it secured 12.92% votes, decimated the Congress. Therefore, it’s interesting to ask what would have happened in Himachal Pradesh, too, if its senior leaders had campaigned in the state.
It’s important to note here that AAP had raised concerns over how the BJP-led Union government treated its Delhi minister, Satyendra Jain, in a corruption case. The party had earlier this year made him in-charge of the Himachal Pradesh affairs but then rolled its decision back after the Enforcement Directorate arrested him.
With regard to Congress’s win, the party, firstly, selected better candidates. Second, it backed them through campaigning by key leaders including Priyanka Gandhi-Vadra, senior poll observer and Chhattisgarh chief minister Bhupesh Baghel and former Rajasthan deputy chief minister Sachin Pilot. This helped many of its candidates win in close fights against their BJP rivals.
Chaos within the party cost it dear
Too many political machinations by senior BJP leaders, coupled with poor ticket distribution, led many sitting legislators to resign from the party, and also led to rebellion and disenchantment among party workers.
An example of the chaos within the BJP can be seen from the fact that all the three independent candidates who won were its rebels.
They are Ashish Sharma from Hamirpur, who defeated Pushpinder Verma of Congress by 12,899 votes, and K.L. Thakur from Nalagarh, who defeated Hardeep Singh Bawa of Congress by 13,264 votes. The margin of victory of these winning independent candidates is enough to demonstrate how weak the BJP candidates were.
The third independent candidate who won was sitting MLA from Dehra, Hoshyar Singh, who defeated Rajesh Sharma of Congress by 3,877 votes. He had joined the BJP just before the polls but was denied the party ticket which went to Ramesh Dhawala, the sitting MLA from Jwalamukhi, who was later moved to Dehra.
Incidentally, Singh was denied a party ticket and Dhawala was moved to Dehra only because the BJP, probably under pressure from a segment of the party, wanted to field former chief minister Prem Kumar Dhumal’s loyalist, Ravinder Singh Ravi, from Jwalamukhi.
However, Ravi, a former legislator from Dehra, lost to Sanjay Rattan of Congress by 6,404 votes from Jwalamukhi, and thus, the party lost two seats just by making too many changes.
No gains for Dhumal family in polls
The BJP had denied tickets to a large number of incumbent legislators or previous contestants in the hope of improving its prospects. However, the move backfired, and stoked a rebellion in the party.
The party also denied a ticket to its former chief minister Prem Kumar Dhumal from Sujanpur. This was the seat he lost in the 2017 election when he was the chief ministerial candidate of the party. The outcome was no different this time.
The new candidate, Ranjit Singh Rana, could not change the fortunes of the BJP and lost to Rajinder Singh of Congress by 399 votes.
Dhumal’s son and Union minister Anurag Thakur had, in fact, cried during a rally while explaining his father’s pain at being denied a ticket.
Thakur had also sought a ticket for his father-in-law Gulab Singh from Joginder but the party gave it to Prakash Prem Kumar. This decision, however, proved to be favourable for the BJP as Kumar defeated Thakur Surender Paul of Congress by 4,339 votes.
Many close contests across the state
This time, there were too many close contests in the Himachal Pradesh assembly polls. There were 35 seats in which the margin of victory was less than 5,000 votes. In seven of these seats, the margin was less than 1,000 votes.
The smallest margin of victory was seen in Bhoranj, where Suresh Kumar of Congress defeated Dr. Anil Dhiman of the BJP by 60 votes.
The biggest margin of victory was seen in Seraj, where chief minister Jairam Thakur defeated Chet Ram of the Congress by 38,183 votes.
Only the chief minister won by biggest margin, several other ministers lost
Though Thakur won this election by the biggest margin in the state, two of his ministers lost their seats.
Law and education minister, Suresh Bhardwaj, lost from Kasumpti, and Ram Lal Markanda from Lahaul and Spiti. Bharadwaj was defeated by Anirudh Singh of Congress by 8,655 votes.
The BJP had fielded all its ministers barring Mahender Singh, the seven-time MLA from Dharampur, who vacated his seat in favour of his son Rajat Thakur.
However, this move proved to be counter-productive for the party, as Thakur lost to Chander Shekhar of the Congress by 3,026 votes.
Incidentally, Singh’s daughter, Vandana Guleria, who was also eyeing the seat, had objected to the decision to give the seat to her brother. She had also threatened to turn rebel but later decided to not contest as an independent candidate.
All major Congress chief minister prospects won the elections
While the BJP treated Dhumal rather shabbily, the Congress gave due respect to the family of its former six-time chief minister Virbhadra Singh in the elections.
After Singh’s demise last year, the party made his widow, Pratibha Singh, who is also an MP from Mandi, the state unit president. It also fielded his son, Vikramaditya Singh, from the Shimla (Rural) assembly constituency.
Singh defeated BJP’s Ravi Kumar Mehta by 13,860 votes.
Incidentally, Singh and his mother, Pratibha Singh, are competing to become the next chief minister of Himachal Pradesh.
Others in the race include former state Congress president Sukhwinder Singh, and Mukesh Agnihotri, leader of the party in the assembly.
Singh won from Nadaun by defeating BJP’s Vijay Kumar by a margin of 3,363 votes. Agnihotri won from Haroli by defeating BJP’s Ram Kumar by 9,148 votes.