After being routed in the Gujarat and Delhi MCD elections, the victory in Himachal Pradesh has provided succour to a Congress party seeking some relief from an existential crisis before the 2024 parliamentary elections.
For the first time in decades, the BJP and Congress went to the people for votes without two of their senior leaders Professor PK Dhumal and Virbhadra Singh.
While the BJP was comfortable with Chief Minister Jai Ram Thakur and the band of influential state and national leaders, the Congress had to rely on its split leadership led by the trio of Sukhvinder Singh Thakur, Mukesh Agnihotri and Pratibha Singh and national leaders like Congress president Mallikarjun Kharge and Priyanka Gandhi.
Politics is India is about populism and sloganeering these days and Himachal proved no exception to this.
Issues of employment, development and welfare measures turned secondary and the doling out of freebies and lucrative schemes that the state’s revenues might find difficult to sustain held sway.
The elections saw tall promises from both parties -- proof of the faith placed in the need for these electoral ploys by both the Congress, which secured 40 seats, and the BJP that won 25.
Most of the Congress' CM faces Sukhvinder Singh Thakur, Vijay Agnihotri and DR Shandil won but other contenders like Kaul Singh Thakur, Ram Lal Thakur and Asha Kumari suffered shocking defeats. Many of the BJP’s cabinet ministers like Suresh Bhardwaj, Govind Thakur, Ramlal Markanda and others also lost their seats.
Ticket allocation and rebellion
Several factors influenced the outcome.
The BJP in a bid to fight anti-incumbency replaced their sitting MLAs. They might now have to admit at least to themselves that the failure to allocate tickets to 11 sitting MLAs and shuffling the seats of two ministers Suresh Bhardwaj and Rakesh Pathania were poor choices.
Fifteen other prominent party leaders were denied tickets sparking a small-scale rebellion that went on to seriously dent their electoral fortunes. Although the party suspended many of the dissidents like Tejvant Negi, Manohar Dhiman, KL Thakur, Kripal Parmar, Vipin Nehra, Hoshiar Singh, Parveen Sharma, Abhishek Thakur, Ram Singh, Sunil Kumar, Gian Chand, Hiteshwar Singh, Raj Kumar Kaundal, Subhash Thakur, Indira Kapoor and others, this ended up weakening the position of its official candidates. The impact of rebels in Congress was comparative lesser.
Empty rants against Congress' dynastic politics
Although BJP has been criticising the Congress all along for being beholden to dynastic politics, the party offered tickets to the sons of ministers and former BJP leaders. Rajat Thakur (Dharampur), son of Jal Shakti Minister Mahender Singh, Chetan Bragta (Jubbal Kotkhai), son of former minister Narinder Bragta, Anil Dhiman (Bhoranj), son of former minister ID Dhiman, and Anil Sharma, son of former communications minister Sukh Ram, were all in the fray. Although some of them won, the BJP's rants against dynastic politics stood exposed.
A strong wave against the BJP government was absent and the anti-incumbency factor was quite weak. After all, the BJP still has 25 seats to show in the 68-member assembly.
The promise of freebies and restoration of the Old Pension Scheme worked for the Congress. In fact, the promise of the restoration of of the Old Pension Scheme definitely impacted the results since more than ten seats have been decided by a margin of under 1000 votes. This meant that even the BJP's robust election campaign failed to help them retain power.
The BJP’s eleven commitments including the promise of eight lakh jobs, implementation of uniform civil code, rollout of the Annadata Scheme and free electricity up to 300 units proved weak when pitted against the ten guarantees made by the Congress that included the Old Pension Scheme, Rs 1500 for every woman, employment for 5 lakh youth, introduction of a cow dung purchase policy and mobile clinics.
The catchwords 'Double Engine', 'Divided Congress' and the declaration of Hattis as scheduled tribes also didn't help the BJP.
Another significant development in this election was the critical role played by the youth. In 2017, there were around 50 lakh voters and that figure increased to around 55 lakh this time. The addition of five lakh youth has played a role in deciding the electoral outcome. With the youth worrying about unemployment and the Centre's Agniveer policy, it probably had a vital impact.
(Harish K Thakur is Director, Centre for Canadian Studies and Professor and Chairman, Department of Political Science, H.P. University, Shimla)