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Election Watch-Himachal: Anti-incumbency and a noose called old pension scheme
It is estimated that 90,000 government employees are still covered by the OPS, while 150,000 come under the new pension scheme. It is also believed that the BJP has left about 70,000 vacancies
Two posters on Mall Road in Shimla sum up the electoral battle for Himachal Pradesh. The BJP’s poster crows about the party’s role in transforming Hindu religious places like Ayodhya and Kashi, reminding voters of the party’s Hindutva credentials and the benefits of a ‘double-engine government’.
The Congress poster, on the other hand, promises the youth 100,000 government jobs. (Himachal already has a high percentage of people— India’s highest, in fact—in government service.) The Congress has also promised to restore the old pension scheme, a highly emotive issue in the state. It is estimated that 90,000 government employees are still covered by the OPS, while 150,000 come under the new pension scheme.
It is also widely believed that the BJP government has not been filling vacancies and that there are about 70,000 vacancies in the state.
While the BJP continues to put up a brave face and says it is determined to reverse the trend since 1985 of the incumbent losing the next assembly election, it has an uphill task, so much so that it has deferred the release of its poll manifesto to November 6, just five days before campaigning ends on November 12.
BJP leaders are telling people the manifesto will have surprises. There are indications that feeling the heat of the promises of the Congress, to restore the old pension scheme in the very first cabinet meeting and to create 100,000 jobs, the BJP may take a U-turn and promise either the OPS or some modified pension scheme.
Addressing a rally, Union home minister Amit Shah claimed that doctors in the All India Institute of Medical Sciences in New Delhi told him that the two best AIIMS—even better than AIIMS, Delhi—are in Himachal Pradesh, at Bilaspur and at Rishikesh. With 18 operation theatres and 64 ICU beds, he boasted, Modiji and Naddaji had spent Rs 1,500 crore to build the two AIIMS in the state.
The state’s apple growers are also upset with the BJP government for withdrawing subsidies on fertilisers and pesticides and imposing GST on cardboard boxes used to pack and transport apples
The Congress promise to bring back the old pension scheme has credibility because the party’s governments in both Rajasthan and Chhattisgarh have done so already. An emboldened Chhattisgarh chief minister Bhupesh Baghel has been telling voters to say ‘Jai Ram’ (goodbye) to chief minister Jairam Thakur.
While releasing a 23-page chargesheet titled Loot Ki Chhoot against the Jairam Thakur government, Congress leader Pawan Khera asked if the chief minister could say how many jobs had been created in the past five years. He said the Congress, if voted to power, will order vigilance inquiries against the recruitment and purchase scams.
Mindful of the large numbers of armed forces personnel from the state, Priyanka Gandhi Vadra has hit out at the BJP’s controversial One Rank One Pension and Agniveer schemes. What kind of scheme retires young men in four years, she has been asking in her rallies.
There’s infighting in the ranks of both the BJP and the Congress, though noticeably more in the ruling party. To counter anti-incumbency, the BJP has denied tickets to nearly a dozen MLAs and changed the constituencies of several legislators, including ministers.
While the heavyweights have been pitted against sitting Congress MLAs, observers are not sure the strategy will work. Only four of 21 BJP rebels have so far withdrawn from the fray. Hamirpur, Sundarnagar, Dharamshala, Kullu, Fatehpur, Kangra, Bilaspur and Kinnaur are some of the constituencies where BJP candidates are facing rebels.
The BJP is hoping that its star campaigners—PM Narendra Modi, home minister Amit Shah, BJP national president J.P. Nadda and other Union ministers—might swing it for the party despite the anti-incumbency wave and the weight of history (no party has repeated a term since 1985).
It is also hopeful that the state’s predominantly Hindu population will respond favourably to the party’s temple rhetoric and communal baiting. But there is a lot of anger over the decision to scrap the old pension scheme as also the unemployment, the high prices and the GST on commodities of everyday consumption.
Local factors and the choice of candidates are also likely to influence the outcome, observers say, while predicting a close, hard-fought election in the hill state. For example, the clamour to legalise poppy cultivation has been growing.
With thousands of acres under illegal cultivation of cannabis, much of which is smuggled out, both drug trade and drug addiction have been on the rise in Himachal. While the Congress has promised an authority to deal with the drug menace, several BJP leaders are pleading to legalise the cultivation.
Legalising the cultivation of cannabis, argues former BJP MP Maheshwar Singh, will not only bring in much-needed revenue to the state but also help check drug addiction. The fibre could be used to produce shoes, ropes and bags.
Opium and cannabis can also feed the pharmaceutical industry besides offering farmers an option to diversify their produce and grow their income. The idea seems to be catching on and BJP leaders hint that the party’s manifesto could contain plans for the future.
There is growing interest in what, if anything, the BJP will promise apple growers. The Congress has promised to allow apple growers the right to fix the price of their produce, which was again a sore point this season. Apple growers have been restive over high input costs and low market prices, which are being skewed by big corporates who have been buying up stock at low prices.
The state’s apple growers are also upset with the BJP government for withdrawing subsidies on fertilisers and pesticides and imposing GST on cardboard boxes used to pack and transport apples.
Professor Mohan Jharta, a keen observer of politics in the hill state, says one can sense frustration among the people and growing resentment. Irregularities in appointments and recruitment, cronyism and high prices are just some of the issues driving anti-incumbency in the state.
A video clip gone viral of BJP leader and former minister Vikram Thakur at a satsang of controversial godman Ram Rahim—who is serving a 20-year jail term for raping two women disciples but is again out on parole—is also a measure of the party’s desperation.
Clearly, influential godmen, even if rape accused, have a reason to be out on parole in election season.