Bus driver’s son holds Himachal steering
A glance into the votes showed Congress secured 43.90 per cent vote share as it wrested Himachal Pradesh from the BJP winning 40 seats in the 68-member Assembly in the hill state which maintained its tradition of voting incumbent government out of power since 1985. Despite getting 43 per cent vote share, the BJP could only manage to win 25 seats, with many segments witnessing lower victory margins.
The AAP failed to open its account, while the CPI-M also did not win any seat and its sitting MLA from Theog also lost. The gap of less than one percent between Congress and BJP vote shares was highlighted by both Prime Minister Narendra Modi and BJP chief J P Nadda in their address to party workers in Delhi after the poll results were declared.
The BJP had given the slogan of “Rajnahin, riwaz badlega”, which translates to “the convention will change, not the government”, but failed to buck the trend. In 2017 state elections, the BJP had won 44 seats, Congress 21, CPI(M) one and Independents two seats. BJP had then got 48.8 per cent votes, Congress 41.7 per cent, Independents 6.3 per cent and CPI(M) had got 1.5 per cent, while NOTA attracted 0.9 per cent votes. After the results, the alacrity with which the Congress selected Sukhvinder Singh Sukhu as Chief Minister and ensured his swearing-in the next day shows that the grand old party has finally earned some lessons after being pipped to the post by the Bharatiya Janata Party in Goa and the North Eastern states despite being the numerically stronger party. In choosing Sukhu, a grassroot sleader who has risen from the ranks and boasts very humble origins being the son of a bus driver, the Congress has displayed rare foresight. For a change Priyanka Gandhi led the campaign while Rahul was busy in Bharat Jodo Yatra. The party quickly snuffed out the mini revolt by a faction loyal to former Chief Minister Virbhadra Singh, whose widow, Pratibha Singh staked her claim to the top post in the state. She was the sitting M.P and PCC President who spearheaded the campaign. But the party adopted a clever balancing act by making Singh loyalist Mukesh Agnihotri and leader of opposition the Deputy Chief minister and promising a ministerial portfolio to the late leader’s son Vikramaditya Singh. In fact, the entire poll campaign in Himachal showed the Congress party in an aggressive, battle ready mode unlike how it virtually sleepwalked through the campaign in Gujarat unlike in 2017.
The AAP seemed to withdraw from the fray though it fielded candidates in 67 of 68 seats. This, no doubt, was a big factor in the Congress victory as the anti-BJP votes saw no split as happened in Gujarat.
On the other hand, the BJP had to battle factionalism and the rebel factor in Himachal where its decision to deny tickets to several sitting MLAs was met with anger. The decision to keep out former CM and veteran BJP leader Prem Kumar Dhumal also proved costly as the party lost all seats in his Hamirpur bastion. The loss was especially embarrassing for BJP president JP Nadda, as it is his home state and he had orchestrated the campaign there.
Analyzing the reasons for BJP’s shock defeat seem to be the apple growers’ plight and increased the disillusionment with the saffron party and the decision to introduce a new pension scheme for government employees proved to be the last nail in the coffin. But the Congress manifesto’s pledges to restore the old pension scheme, provide jobs and help the apple growers resonated with voters. Another key factor responsible for the Congress success in Himachal was the absence of Hindutva politics in the run-up to the election. The verdict also proved that the Narendra Modi factor does not always work in state elections.
The Congress, now led by Mallikarjun Kharge, has its task cut out to provide stable governance for the next five years in the hill state. But Sukhu also has a tough road ahead, managing factions, egos and people’s expectations.