AAP, BJP Launch Poll Campaign in Himachal Pradesh: Will Grand Old Party be Left Behind?
The original version of the article was published on 20th April in “The Daily Guardian”
“You have given 30 years to Congress and 17 years to BJP to rule the state, all they did was loot Himachal. Just give me five years. If you are not satisfied, you can change us,” proclaimed New Delhi Chief Minister and National Convener of the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP), Arvind Kejriwal, during the party’s first-ever roadshow in Mandi, Himachal Pradesh on 6 April 2022. On the same day, Himachal Pradesh Chief Minister Jai Ram Thakur launched the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP)’s “Chalein Booth Ki Ore — Barhein Jeet Ki Ore” campaign in Mandi, on the occasion of the party’s foundation day.
Political fortunes in Himachal Pradesh have always been uncertain. So far, the competition has been majorly two-sided with the INC and BJP wrestling for victory. In 2012, the INC under the leadership of Virbhadra Singh defeated the BJP, winning by a slim majority of 36 seats in the assembly with a vote share of 42.81 per cent. Meanwhile, the BJP secured 26 seats and a vote share of 38.47 per cent. The 2012 elections were marked by a series of internal issues for both parties with party members deserting their positions for other parties. However, the BJP definitely suffered more damage, and tensions between senior leaders Dhumal and Shanta Kumar were reflected in the party’s performance in the Kangra district, where the BJP only won three out of 15 seats.
Subsequently, in 2017, the BJP successfully wrestled back control from the INC, securing a vote share of 48.79 per cent along with 44 seats. The INC managed to win 21 seats with a vote share of 41.68 per cent.
The BJP took advantage of the anti-incumbency in the state and attacked incumbent Chief Minister Virbhadra Singh for enabling a “Mafia Raj” in the state. The party attacked the deteriorating law and order situation as well, driven by a rise in the number of murder and sexual assault cases in the state. The anti-incumbency was further fueled by the lack of industry, poor growth in tourism due to infrastructural deficits, and connectivity issues. The INC also faced a lack of support and backing from senior leaders after the loss, as described by incumbent Chief Minister Virbhadra Singh. However, in October 2021, during the by-polls held in Arki, Fatehpur and Jubbal-Kotkhai Assembly segments, the INC managed to win all three seats, giving the BJP a jolt as these seats were considered the BJP’s strongholds. The party managed to win the Lok Sabha constituency Mandi during the bypolls. Unlike the state polls, the BJP had previously consistently won Parliamentary elections in the state from 2009. It repeated its performance in 2019, winning all four seats, and also managed to increase its vote share from 53.85 per cent to 69.71 per cent in 2019.
Major Electoral Issues
The BJP’s losses in the bypolls held last year have been a testament to the fact that there is rising discontent amongst the electorate against the ruling government. Some of the major issues that were brought up during the by-polls included rising fuel prices and unemployment, which will continue to dictate the narrative for the 2022 Assembly polls. The unemployment rate in the state was 12.1 per cent for March 2022 according to the CMIE. This is significantly higher than the Indian average of 7.6 per cent. The unemployment rate has remained elevated above 10 per cent for most months since November 2017. In addition to this, there is rising discontent amongst apple growers in the state as wholesale prices have taken a hit. Agriculture is a major contributor to the economy of Himachal Pradesh — around 90 per cent of the state’s population resides in rural areas, out of which 56.5 per cent are associated with agricultural activities and are dependent on agriculture for survival.
Another major issue likely to come up is the Hatti community’s demand for Scheduled Tribe (ST) status. The community, which has around three lakh members, could influence the outcome in nine constituencies in the state and is largely concentrated in the Trans-Giri area of the Sirmaur district. Although the community used to be politically fragmented, members began to lean towards the BJP almost 15 years ago when the party promised that it would grant them ST status. This promise remains to be fulfilled, despite the BJP repeating it in its manifestos, including in the 2017 Assembly elections. Other electoral issues will include the demand for the old pension scheme by government employees as well as internal factionalism and infighting in parties. There have been reports of BJP members being dissatisfied with the leadership of Chief Minister Jai Ram Thakur. These have been fueled by allegations of corruption and bureaucracy during his tenure, including against his top officials, such as Chief Secretary Ram Subhag Singh.
Road Shows and Freebies: Path to 2022
With around six months to go, parties have launched their campaigns at full speed in the state. The BJP, as a part of “Mission Repeat 2022”, kickstarted its campaign with a Maha Jan Sampark (mega public outreach) drive and a Padyatra in all assembly seats. With an eye on Assembly elections, Jai Ram Thakur announced that his government decided to provide free power for up to 125 units from 1 July. The party also said water bills in rural areas will be waived, which would result in families getting a benefit of ₹30 crores. Other announcements by the party also include a 50 per cent discount on travelling in Himachal Road Transport Corporation (HRTC) buses for women, a ₹5 crore allocation to expedite work on Holiuttarala road as well as legislation that will guarantee 120 days of wage employment to households in urban areas. The Chief Minister also tabled the state budget in the assembly earlier this month with a focus on agriculture, women, and the youth.
The AAP, which has not fought elections in the state before, kicked off its campaign with a massive roadshow led by Arvind Kejriwal and Punjab Chief Minister Bhagwant Mann, boasting the attendance by thousands. The party appointed an eight-member team to devise its poll strategy in the state, and the election in-charge in the state is Delhi health minister Satyendra Jain, while Durgesh Pathak has been appointed state in-charge with Ratnesh Gupta as his deputy. The AAP will contest the election on the issues of corruption and providing better infrastructure for schools and hospitals as per the party spokesperson. As part of its strategy, the party is considering contesting the civic body elections scheduled to be held in Shimla next month. According to analysts, the AAP could be viewed as a viable alternative to the bipolar system of power-sharing that has dominated the politics of the state given, especially, that the party has been making inroads in the state by attracting voters from economically weaker sections with its welfarist policies.
The INC has not officially launched its campaign in the state yet, due to infighting. However, it has formulated a committee to tackle the Shimla Municipal Elections likely to be scheduled next month. The state president Kuldeep Singh Rathore mentioned that the party will raise issues of unemployment and inflation in its election campaign. The INC’s infighting has aggravated even more after the passing of six-time Chief Minister Virbhadra Singh, which left a power vacuum in the party in Himachal Pradesh. Second-generation leaders in the party have been vying for the top spot since his demise, leading to factionalism. Given the speed and fervour of campaigns by both the BJP and the AAP, the INC stands to lose the momentum it gained during the 2021 by-polls if it doesn’t start campaigning soon.
Shreya Maskara/New Delhi
Contributing reports by Damini Mehta, Senior Research Associate at Polstrat and Abhinav Nain, Akhil Chirravuri, Uday Wadhwa Interns at Polstrat.
From Polstrat, a non-partisan political consultancy which aims to shift the narrative of political discourse in the country from a problem-centric to a solutions-oriented approach.
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