An uphill task for BJP in hilly Himachal
Himachal has traditionally swung between Congress and BJP. With discontent brewing among govt employees, apple farmers and party workers, the odds in this election are stacked against the ruling BJP
There is popular resentment against the state government and there is infighting too in the ruling BJP, but the Congress has its own worries with rebels and rival candidates. The BJP has dumped several ministers, fielded new faces and put up a tea stall owner in Shimla in place of a former minister. Add to this the token presence of the BSP and AAP, and the difference between winning and losing promises to get even narrower in some constituencies than in 2017, when the margin of victory in 34 seats was less than 5,000 votes.
Government employees, apple growers and women: The votes of government employees, apple growers and women could be decisive this time in the small hill state. Local issues and the choice of candidates will queer the pitch to varying extents, making it difficult to predict the outcome. Not many are willing to hazard predictions yet, and the buzz is that it will be “a tight contest”.
Both apple growers and state government employees have been restive. Demonstrations were a regular feature till elections were announced. Employees want the old pension scheme back. Under the scheme the employees are entitled to receive a monthly pension amounting to 50 per cent of the last basic pay. The new pension scheme, on the other hand, is a contributory fund determined by the savings made by employees.
While the demand is being raised from 2015-16 itself, the BJP has resisted it saying that it would have a disastrous effect on the state’s finances. The Congress has promised to restore the old scheme, if voted to power. Himachal Pradesh has the highest proportion of population working as government employees. But with the government going slow in filling up vacancies, the number of employees is not as high as in 2017
Employees have also been demanding payment of sixth pay commission arrears and pending dearness allowance for 18 months. In March this year police used force to disperse about 30,000 government employees at the state assembly in Shimla. Since then, employees protested in all districts and blocks till Election Commission announced assembly elections on 14 October in the state. While polling is scheduled for November 12, the results will be declared on December 8.
Himachal Pradesh is among the six states which have reported the highest unemployment. Besides government jobs and farming, the only other employment avenues are hospitality and transport. The pandemic affected both these sectors. The Centre for Monitoring Indian Economy (CMIE) had estimated unemployment rate in Himachal Pradesh at 12.1 per cent in March—higher than the national average of 7.6 per cent.
Neeraj Thakur vents his frustration at the inordinate delays in filling up posts in the government. Selection tests were held late and results were challenged in court. Most educated youth, he says, are being forced to migrate to other states.
The state government has released a spate of advertisements claiming that the state has taken giant strides in education. But government schools continue to languish with 10,000 vacancies of teachers. Hundreds of schools are operating with just one teacher although there are youth with B.Ed degrees waiting to get employed, points out Vicky Kumar from Mandi.
Apple growers: Apples were first introduced in the state in the early 20th century by American missionary Samuel Stokes. He married a local resident. Their daughter Vidya Stokes is a senior Congress leader. Apple growers, who can influence outcomes in around 18 seats in four districts, have been agitating with their 20-point charter of demand for the past one year. But chief minister Jairam Thakur agreed to meet them only in August this year.
While the government in July had announced a scheme to return the 6 per cent of GST imposed on cartons used to transport apples, the government has been silent on the MSP (minimum support price) for apples, which farmers sold this year at prices ranging from Rs 62 to Rs 80 per kilogram, only to find corporate firms buying them in bulk and selling them at Rs 250 a kg or more.
Input costs have gone up by 300 per cent in the last five years, claim apple growers. Apple grower Prashant Sehta from Shimla recalls BJP’s promise in the last election to ensure remunerative prices for apples. “Yet for the first time in the last 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 PM Narendra Modi and chief minister Jairam Thakur. The Prime Minister’s frequent visits to the poll-bound state is evidence of his love for the state and its people, claim BJP leaders. Congress leaders have been sarcastic and ask as to what the PM has given the state besides visiting it and putting on local caps and capes.
The state has been alternating between Congress and BJP governments since 1985. The BJP has geared up to buck the trend, promising benefits of a “double engine” government. It is also a prestige election as Himachal is the home state of BJP president J.P. Nadda, and a defeat in 2022 will reduce the momentum for the 2024 general election.
Conscious of the past trend and anti-incumbency, the BJP has denied ticket to over a dozen sitting MLAs and fielded fresh faces. In a signal to the electorate and to deny the opposition a stick to attack it, BJP has also denied ticket to Prem Kumar Dhumal, former chief minister and father of union I&B minister Anurag Thakur. Thakur’s father-inlaw has also been denied a ticket by the party. With rebel candidates and discontent among sections of the party faithful, it is not clear if the party can capitalise on the fresh faces.
Anti-incumbency is also strong in districts like Chamba, Kullu, Sirmour and Lahaul Spiti where people continue to complain of inadequate infrastructure. Says Suman Sharma, “The government does a lot of tall talk about tele-medicine and helicopter-ambulance services. But even for X-ray and Ultrasound tests people still have to travel around a hundred kilometres to reach bigger hospitals.”
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 of Kangra, Spiti, Mandi and Chamba, people continue to be without electricity for weeks during the harsh winter months.
Although the anti-incumbency is strong, the Congress may miss its former chief minister, the late Veerbhadra Singh, say some observers. It will also lose some votes to the new entrant Aam Aadmi Party.
While the Prime Minister speaks against the freebie culture and castigates opposition, the Jairam Thakur government has done precisely that, alleges Congress general secretary Sushant Kapret.
The Jairam Thakur government has been bending over backwards to please the party’s central leadership, he claims, but has failed to secure any major financial package from the Union government. With a public debt of Rs 67,000 crore, the state government’s fiscal mismanagement has left it with little flexibility for the future, say critics.
RTI activist Brijlal Sharma alleges that several schemes have remained on paper. He also complains that corruption in the state has hit new highs in the past five years. The performance of the state government has been poor and it has been pulled up by the high court and NGT for its inability to stop illegal mining and ensure water supply, he adds.