The upcoming assembly election in Himachal Pradesh holds immense political significance for the Congress as well as the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP).
Though Himachal Pradesh is a small state that does not wield much influence over national politics, it currently happens to be one of the two territorial entities in the country (the other being Gujarat) that will indicate which way the 2019 Lok Sabha polls are likely to turn.
The Congress ruled the state for three continuous terms from 1963 to 1977, until Shanta Kumar of the Janata Party broke its monopoly to form the first non-Congress government in Shimla. Since then, the pendulum of power in Himachal Pradesh has been swinging between the Congress and the BJP.
In order to make a comeback in the hills, the saffron party is cashing in on Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s supposed charisma and the various schemes rolled out during his three-year rule at the Centre.
Modi, who has served as its party in-charge for state affairs in the years gone by, repeatedly visited Himachal to bolster the BJP poll campaign. National president Amit Shah also focused on improving the party’s political prospects by holding a series of rallies, meetings and conventions in the hill state.
The Himachal polls may well be the litmus test for Shah’s organisational skills. He has succeeded in keeping intra-party squabbles among ambitious leaders at bay thus far.
The party is yet to announce its chief ministerial face in Himachal Pradesh, although veteran leaders such as Prem Kumar Dhumal, Jagat Parkash Nadda and Shanta Kumar have made covert attempts to project themselves as prominent choices.
It may be recalled that the party had lost in 2012 – scoring just 26 in the 68-member legislative assembly – primarily due to the factional fight between Dhumal and Shanta Kumar. It faced rebellion in as many as 18 seats, and two made it to the assembly as independent candidates. The party’s vote share had slumped by 5% in the previous election.
Harish Thakur, head of the political science department at the Himachal Pradesh University, gave credence to the idea that the state polls are crucial from a national point of view. “Besides judging the performance of the state government, voters will also evaluate the gap between the promises made by the Narendra Modi government and what was eventually delivered,” he said.
Meanwhile, a troubled Congress is counting on its old war horse – six-time chief minister Virbhadra Singh – despite the corruption and disproportionate assets cases that are bearing him down.
Modi has himself attacked Virbhadra for corruption and “misrule”, and the harried Congress leader will find emerging successful difficult with so much time wasted shuttling between Delhi and Shimla in connection with his cases.
This time, Virbhadra also faces a challenge from within. State party chief Sukhvinder Singh Sukhu has managed to cling on to the post despite stiff opposition from the veteran leader. Infighting between the two reached a point where Virbhadra threatened to stay away from election campaigning unless Sukhu was brought to heel. Wary of losing such an influential leader, the party leadership stepped up efforts to placate him.
However, it would be premature of the BJP to believe that the battle is already won. A veteran of many political upheavals, Virbhadra’s ability to fight back has been his biggest strength in a career spanning over 50 years.
Virbhadra, a scion of the Bushar royal family, is keen on passing his political legacy to his son – state Youth Congress chief Vikramaditya Singh – this time around. At 84, Singh may be contesting the assembly elections for the last time.
While the Congress is facing anti-incumbency, the BJP is concerned by public distress over factors like inflation, demonetisation and economic disruption due to the newly introduced Goods and Services Tax.
Himachal Pradesh has always witnessed bipolar politics. Though 2008 seemed like it could be an exception, with the Bahujan Samaj Party entering the state in a big way, it ended up winning just one seat. Its lone legislator, Sanjay Chaudhary, later joined the BJP.