In opting for change yet again, Himachal offers the Congress a lifeline - Hindustan Times
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In opting for change yet again, Himachal offers the Congress a lifeline

Dec 08, 2022 11:18 PM IST

The mandate is clear. The Congress has a simple majority. But a look at the vote share shows that there was no massive wave of discontent against the incumbent BJP government.

For decades, elections in Himachal Pradesh were characterised as a “two-horse” race (between the Congress and the Bharatiya Janata Party) or a “two clan” contest (between Virbhadra Singh and Prem Kumar Dhumal). 2022 consigned the second feature to history. The hill state went to the polls this time with new leadership in both parties, albeit with significant amounts of infighting and dissension.

Congress supporters celebrating victory in Himachal Pradesh. (Aqil Khan/Hindustan Times) PREMIUM
Congress supporters celebrating victory in Himachal Pradesh. (Aqil Khan/Hindustan Times)

The post-Virbhadra Singh Congress — despite grappling with succession battles as several old and new faces pitched for chieftainship — saw respite come from winning the battle and securing the majority in the House. The BJP’s war cry of Rivaz Badlega (customs will change, a reference to the state’s political tradition of voting out the incumbent) didn’t sit well with the electorate, who chose to go with the Congress’s slogan of Badlega Taj (the crown will change hands).

The mandate is clear. The Congress has a simple majority. But a look at the vote share — the BJP secured 43% votes, compared to the Congress’s 43.9% — shows that there was no massive wave of discontent against the incumbent BJP government. Instead, one should look at this mandate, seat by seat, to see which local factors, or groups, made a difference. The prime causes of the BJP’s defeat appear to be the Congress’s promise to return to the Old Pension Scheme (OPS) — which is likely to have appealed to the influential demographic of government employees, who make up 3.5% of the state and wield outsized influence in the electoral discourse — and the damage caused by BJP rebels who left the party to run as independents.

These issues aside, it was perhaps the BJP’s organisational management that turned out to be its biggest enemy. The denial of tickets to 11 sitting Members of Legislative Assembly and the shuffling of constituencies of two Cabinet members prompted rebel voices who hurt the party at the hustings, despite the idea being driven to quell anti-incumbency.

This is interesting, given that the BJP has managed dissension and anti-incumbency expertly in other states. The challenge was present with the Congress too, but this was significantly less when compared to the BJP. Especially in the swing region of Kangra — the largest district in the state that sends 15 of the 68 lawmakers in the state — issues such as unemployment and the new four-year model of army recruitment called Agniveer helped the Congress edge ahead of the BJP in the absence of strong grouses against governance. Though the Congress has won, its commitment to OPS — which may well have made the difference between the two parties — will come to hurt it in power, given the hefty financial burden it entails in a state where the government is the principal employer.

The Aam Aadmi Party’s stillborn campaign was instructive too. The party had hoped to become a force in the state but appeared to throw in the towel early. But there are two important lessons the party can learn to expand its base. The first was its selection of candidates, mostly disgruntled BJP and Congress leaders. This did not work because a new party should have ideally chosen fresh faces with more experience and greater public acceptance. The second was that its agenda paled in comparison to the ideological plank on which the Congress and the BJP built their campaign on, leaving no space for an ideologically vacillating but delivery-focused outfit.

Himachal Pradesh is a small state. Yet, it has resurrected the Congress, deferred its existential crisis — at least for a while — and has given the party only its third state government. In the same breath, its defeat in Gujarat and its complete uprooting in the Delhi civic polls indicate that a lot more needs to be done for it to regain its status as a formidable player in the national realm. Whether the Congress learns the lessons from the hill state — smart candidate selection, an issues-based campaign, listening to local grievances, and not ceding ground to new players — will determine whether it can regain its stature.

Professor Harish K Thakur is director, Himachal Pradesh University, Shimla

The views expressed are personal

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