Not many are willing to hazard any predictions and the buzz is that Himachal Pradesh will witness a tight electoral contest. As the Himalayan state goes to the polls on Nov 12 to elect representatives for 68 Assembly constituencies, who will take the crownremains the most vexing question. There is popular resentment against the State Government and there is infighting in the ruling BJP, which has dumped several ministers, fielded new faces, and put up a tea-stall owner in Shimla in place of a former minister. Things have come to such a pass that rebel candidates are changing the dynamics for the ruling party.
Despite the efforts of BJP President JP Nadda, a native of Himachal Pradesh, to placate the rebels, the situation does not seem to be on an even keel for the party. No wonder the video clip of Prime Minister Narendra Modi that went viral, allegedly showed him pressing rebel candidates to withdraw from the race, has not gone down too well with voters. But the saffron party is pulling out all stops to retain Himachal Pradesh and buck the historical pattern of changing the ruling party every five years.
The Congress, which was initially seen as sluggish, tardy and uncomprehendingly obtuse, is back in the reckoning perceptibly, leaving the BJP sweating. Add to this the token presence of the BSP and AAP and the difference between winning and losing promises to get narrower in some constituencies than in 2017, when the margin of victory in 34 seats was less than 5,000 votes.
Both apple growers and State Government employees have been restive. Demonstrations were a regular feature till elections were announced. The employees want the old pension scheme back. Under the scheme they are entitled to a monthly pension amounting to 50%of their last basic pay.The new pension scheme, onthe otherhand, is a contributory fund determined by savings made by employees. While the demand has been raised from 2015-16,the BJP has resisted it saying it would have a disastrous impact on the state’s finances. But the Congress has promised to restore the old scheme if voted to power.
Among all states of the Union, Himachal Pradesh has the highest proportion of its population working in government. But with the Government going slow in filling up vacancies, the number of employees today is not as high as it used to be in 2017. Employees have also been demanding the Sixth Pay Commission arrears and pending dearness allowance for 18 months.
In March, police used force to disperse about 30,000 government employees outside the state Assembly in Shimla. Since then, employees have protested in all districts and blocks till the Election Commission of India announced the election on Oct 14. Himachal Pradesh is among six states to have reported the highest unemployment.
Besides government jobs and farming,the only avenues for employment are hospitality and transport, both sectors hit hard by the Covid-19 pandemic.
The Centre for Monitoring the Indian Economy (CMIE) had estimated the unemployment rate in Himachal Pradesh at 12.1% in March, much higher than the national average of 7.6%. Apple growers, who can influence the outcome in at least 18 seats in four districts, have been agitating with their 20-point charter of demands for the past year. But Chief Minister Jairam Thakur agreed to meet them only in August.
While the Government in July had announced a scheme to return 6% GST imposed on cartons used to transport apples, it has been silent on the demand for MSP (minimum support price) for the fruit which farmers sold this year at prices ranging from Rs 62 to Rs 80 a kilogram, only to find corporations buying them in bulk and selling them at Rs 250 a kilo or more.
For the first time in 30 years, apple growers have been forced to demonstrate on the streets not once but several times without securing any relief. The BJP is banking on the personal appeal of Modi and Thakur. Modi’s frequent visits are evidence of his love for the state and its people, claim BJP leaders. But anti-incumbency is strong in districts like Chamba, Kullu, Sirmaur and Lahaul-Spiti where people continue to complain of inadequate infrastructure. Similarly, the Government has claimed that all villages in the state have been electrified. It also launched a scheme of allowing ‘free’ electricity up to 125 units of consumption. But in villages in Kangra, Spiti, Mandi and Chamba,people continue to be without electricity for weeks during the harsh winter months.
While the Congress has the anti-incumbency winds in its sails, it lacks a towering local figure like the late former Chief Minister Virbhadra Singh to helm its ship to harbour. The party has been quiet about its chief ministerial candidate as naming anyone could open a can of worms.
With a few contenders jostling for the position, the Congress has been unable to name a clear frontrunner. With the AICC’s presence almost negligible, candidates have been left virtually on their own to handle their campaigns in terms of resources and the activities on the ground. So there is no clear winner in sight. The high-decibel campaigns of the Opposition parties have raised the heat on the Government, but the election could still end up as a cliff-hanger with both sides facing an uphill task.
Neelu Vyas is a senior television anchor and consulting editor with Satya Hindi