As the Election Commission announced the Himachal Pradesh assembly poll on November 12, Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s mission for “Repeat BJP” is set to stop any serious challenge from the Opposition–be it the Congress or the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP), which is trying to make a foray into the hill state.
Modi has held several rallies, launched new projects and reached out to voters with the promise that the “double engine” sarkar of the BJP at the centre and the state will offer them a better deal than the opposition.
Since 1993, the hill state has witnessed alternate governments as no ruling party has seen repeated by the voters.
Big questions before the voters are will Congress reclaim power or will the Modi factor push things in the BJP’s favour? Can current Chief minister Jairam Thakur help the BJP win again? Will the Congress be able to claim the legacy of its longest-serving Chief Minister, the late Virbhadra Singh, by projecting his widow Pratibha Singh without declaring her as the party’s CM face?
Undoubtedly, Modi’s charisma and leadership are the biggest advantages for the BJP in Himachal Pradesh, which is also the home state of party chief J P Nadda and Union information and broadcasting minister Anurag Thakur.
Modi wants Himachal Pradesh voters to do what the voters of Uttarakhand did– re-elect the BJP for a consecutive term, assuring them to remove the factors that might have come in the way of optimum performance in the last five years.
Modi’s mantra of “double-engine” government is a term that the BJP has used successfully to appeal to voters in Uttar Pradesh, Uttarakhand, Goa, and Manipur where the polls were held earlier this year.
The “double-engine” government is a term that the BJP uses to claim that voting for it will prove to be more beneficial for a state’s development as it is in power in the Centre.
Therefore, despite some anti-incumbency factors, Modi has openly backed Jairam Thakur and commended his work while warning the electors about the “dangers” of trying out the opposition at this stage.
This time, the AAP buoyed by its success in neighbouring Punjab has sought to challenge them. Delhi CM Arvind Kejriwal and his Punjab counterpart Bhagwant Mann have toured the state, showcasing their promises and achievements in their respective states. They want the voters to give the AAP a chance in Himachal Pradesh.
On the other hand, the Congress has left to the state leaders to handle the campaign though party general secretary Priyanka Gandhi Vadra is to tour from October 14. Former Congress president Rahul Gandhi is busy with the party’s ‘Bharat Jodo Yatra.’
That has made some Himachal Congress leaders very edgy to believe that Modi’s aggressive campaign has already given the BJP a big x factor. Many prominent Congress leaders, including sitting MLAs and working presidents, have left the party, citing factionalism and disarray over party operations in the State.
Pratibha Singh, the widow of Congress’ six-term chief minister Virbhadra Singh, has been, of course, doing her best to propel her party’s campaign. She was appointed HP Congress Committee (HPCC) president in April this year. At 66, Pratibha finds that she is leading a faction-ridden Congress campaign, which is the first one in the absence of her husband Virbhadra Singh who was a tall figure for the Congress,
Pratibha was first elected to the Lok Sabha in 2004 from the Mandi constituency, which was also represented by Virbhadra Singh earlier. She defeated the BJP’s Jairam Thakur from the same seat in the 2013 bypoll, which was vacated after Virbhadra took charge as the CM. She again won from Mandi in a bypoll last year after the seat was vacated following the death of the sitting BJP MP Ram Swaroop Sharma.
Pratibha remains confident of the Congress because of key issues like farmers’ concerns, unemployment and inflation. She thinks that the voters will remember Virbhadra’s legacy. Though she is not sure whether Congress will name her as CM if the party wins, she is determined to do her best.
As an antidote to Modi’s appeal, both the AAP and the Congress have promised several freebies including a monthly allowance of ₹1000 and ₹1,500 respectively to all eligible women in the age group of 18 to 60 years. They believe women voters hold the key in this year’s election.
In fact, Congress’s 10-point guarantees have similarities with the promises of the AAP, including 300 units of free electricity to every household, free mobile clinics, and English-medium schools in each constituency.
The BJP, on the other hand, is reaching out to the youth, women, farmers, and various communities, including SCs and STs, and making them aware of the achievements of the state and central governments, including various farmers’ welfare schemes, social security schemes, subsidised electricity to the poor, subsidised bus fare for women.
What does worry the ruling party is the issue of unemployment in the hill state as COVID-19 hit the state’s tourism sector very badly. There have been problems for apple growers.
The Congress had the highest tally of 52 MLAs in 1993. In contrast, its tally was the lowest at 21 during the last assembly election held in 2017. The BJP had its largest-ever tally of 44 in the last assembly election and its lowest tally was six in 1993. The vote percentage of Congress has swung from 39% (in 2007) to 49% (1993). The vote share of the BJP has ranged from 35% (2003) to 49% (2017).
Apart from Modi, top BJP leaders including J P Nadda, Amit Shah and Rajnath Singh have addressed several rallies. In particular, Modi’s push for infrastructure projects has seen the launch of the fourth Vande Bharat Express train from Una town to Delhi on October 13. Modi has also laid the foundation stone for ₹1,923 crore bulk drug park in Una’s Haroli.
Himachal Pradesh’s industrial belt of Baddi-Barotiwala is known as the second biggest pharma hub in the country next to Sikkim. The project is expected to involve an investment of ₹50,000 crores and give employment opportunities to at least 30,000 people. Modi also launched the 80MW Bajoli hydroelectric project and laid the foundation stones of the 48MW Chanju-III and 30.5MW Deothal Chanju hydel projects. He inaugurated the All India Institute of Medical Sciences (AIIMS), Bilaspur, and Hydro Engineering College, Bandla.
In all, the BJP government has announced and inaugurated projects worth more than Rs 4,000 crore in different constituencies over the past month. Jairam Thakur has highlighted as his government’s achievements the Mukhya Mantri Grihani Yojana under which 3.35 lakh women have been given free gas connections and the Mukhya Mantri Swawlamban Yojana under which a 35 per cent subsidy was granted to new entrepreneurs.
In almost every meeting, the BJP CM has talked about the impact of the Mukhya Mantri Shagun Yojana, which provided Rs 31,000 to girls in Below Poverty Line (BPL) families. He has also listed his government’s Nari Ko Naman Yojana under which a 50% concession is given to women in state-run buses.
The government is also showcasing HIMCARE — it comes under the Centre’s Ayushman Bharat Scheme — as a flagship scheme that provides medical cover up to Rs 5 lakh per year for three years for an annual cost of Rs 1,000. For some beneficiaries, the annual cost is Rs 365.
(The author is a senior journalist and a well-known political commentator)