For once, the Congress party has scored a point over BJP in the state, with elections to the state Assembly just round the corner. The announcement that Chief Minister Virbhadra Singh will continue to hold the post next time also, if the party retains power, has certainly ruffled feathers in the Bharatiya Janata Party.
Though Rahul Gandhi’s recent rally at Mandi was only a moderate success compared to Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s rally at Bilaspur, Rahul’s announcement of the chief ministerial candidate came as a surprise to the BJP leadership.
This, coupled with BJP’s now familiar secrecy about the CM candidate, does not seem to go in the party’s favour.
The two main contenders for the top `gaddi’ ~ two-time chief minister Prem Kumar Dhumal and Union Health Minister Jagat Prakash Nadda ~ have their followers campaigning for them in whispers.
Dhumal’s supporters say he is the only BJP leader with a presence in all districts of the state and is by and large the most acceptable leader. Nadda’s supporters claim that his stature has grown by leaps and bounds ever since he took charge of the Health Ministry at the Centre and has become a close aide of the Prime Minister and Amit Shah , the second most powerful man in BJP.
Many party workers also talk about Modi’s policy of not appointing leaders above 75 to public positions as a factor against Dhumal who has only a couple of years to go before reaching that age. They say Modi would prefer a person who can run the state for a full five-year term.
According to them, the Prime Minister has not been particularly fond of Dhumal who did not nurse good relations with Modi while he was only Chief Minister of Gujarat.
What can hurt the BJP most is a strong feeling among the people of the state that a less experienced man with no strong base may be sprung as a surprise if the BJP gets a comfortable majority in the polls ~ on the pattern of other states like Uttar Pradesh and Haryana, where the top men’s performances have run into controversies.
This feeling (rightly or wrongly) can cause discomfort among the voters. Even supporters and workers are unlikely to work wholeheartedly to bring the party to power so that the bosses at the top can hand over the reins to someone who suits their own whims and fancies.
A BJP activist, requesting anonymity, said: “In a democracy the voters have a right to know who will head the government before casting their vote. In a small state like Himachal Pradesh, almost all decisions (even the small ones which may appear insignificant in bigger states) are made by the chief minister. Even transfers and postings of minor officials cannot be done without the CM’s approval. There are instances when even clerks and peons manipulate transfers and postings with a direct approach to the CM’s office, irrespective of which party is in power.”
It is widely acknowledged that Dhumal’s acceptability spreads right across the whole state and both his terms as chief minister were without any major controversy or the anti-incumbency factor.
The main, or perhaps the only, reason for the BJP losing the elections in 2012 was its ruthless attack on the already beleaguered Virbhadra Singh on charges of alleged corruption 20 years earlier. People in general were not willing to believe that Singh as a person was corrupt.
In the 1990’s, then Union Minister Sukh Ram’s house was raided and close to Rs 4 crore in cash was unearthed – but it did not prevent the voters from electing him and his newly formed party to power. The public logic was that the amount involved in the alleged corruption was “too small and negligible” compared to the hundreds of crores of public money swindled at the Centre and other states.
In fact, there was a strange sympathy that Sukh Ram was simple-minded and got caught. His considerable work in the telecom sector in this hill state with a difficult terrain and lack of road and communication connectivity overruled other factors against him.
In 2012, the BJP’s well publicised attack on Virbhadra Singh revived his political significance and galvanised him into action. His tireless and virtually single-handed campaign during the polls in which he moved like a tornado all over the state finally unseated the Dhumal government, which was, otherwise, all set to retain power.
Singh had (and now also has) enough rivals in his own party and BJP had only to leave him alone.
The situation this time may not be similar in all aspects, but there are some parallels that should perturb the BJP which is pinning its hope heavily on Modi and the state’s habit of voting for BJP and Congress alternatively. This logic gives an edge to the BJP this time.
But the slowly waning influence of Modi cannot be ignored. The corruption cases against Virbhadra Singh and family (which have been accelerated allegedly at the behest of BJP leaders) are one of the factors that made the Congress high command stand by him.
Of course, Singh has always been the state’s most ruthless and powerful critic of the BJP who launches a full-fledged frontal attack on all BJP leaders (not sparing even Modi and his close associates) publicly.
On the brighter side, the hope of Central support to different new institutions and projects in the state may play a role in tilting the scales in favour of the BJP.
But even a victory with fewer seats than they are aiming at (50 plus) is not going to be a cakewalk. BJP workers and leaders will have to campaign hard to dispel the growing disenchantment with Modi’s promises and recent measures like GST and demonetisation.
And, of course, the unacceptable secrecy about their chief ministerial candidate must end.