THE APPLES TURNED bitter for the BJP. The state―India’s second-largest apple producer after Jammu and Kashmir―had seen several protests against the hike in GST rates and low prices of the fruit. Expectedly, the apple belt went back to the Congress, which it had traditionally voted for.
There were also other issues―the Old Pension Scheme, Agniveer, unemployment and rising prices―which combined to fell the BJP.
Himachal is an outlier in 2022, elections wise. Uttar Pradesh, Uttarakhand and now Gujarat, all voted for the BJP and its double-engine government. Also, Himachal is now the third state, after Rajasthan and Chhatisgarh, with a majority Congress government.
Though Chief Minister Jai Ram Thakur won Seraj for the sixth time, he could not win the state for his party. Sources close to him claimed that the BJP put up a fight only because of him; it could have been worse. The BJP’s best performance was in Thakur’s Mandi district, where it retained most seats.
For the Congress, the gains came from the apple belt of Shimla, and Kangra district, which has the most seats and borders Punjab. The backlash to the Agniveer scheme was felt here.
Unlike in Gujarat, the Congress had been campaigning hard in the hill state. It was buoyed by the win in the byelections to three assembly and one Lok Sabha seat last November.
What seemed to have clicked for the Congress are the 10 guarantees it made months before the elections. Among them were free electricity up to 300 units; Rs1,500 a month to women between 18 and 60; and the right to fix fruit prices to the growers. The Congress got women to fill seven lakh forms asking for pension, which created a buzz. This was a significant number in a state with 55 lakh voters. Then there were the four lakh serving and retired government employees whom the Congress wooed with the pension scheme promise.
“Compare these promises with those made by the BJP,” said Professor Ramesh Chauhan, who teaches at the Himachal Pradesh University in Shimla. “The party talked about implementing the Uniform Civil Code, investigating wakf properties, and cycles and scooties for girls in a state where the price of petrol is very high. These issues did not resonate with the people. The Congress made promises on things that impact daily lives.”
The BJP was relying on Modi magic as the prime minister was once the party’s point man in Himachal. Both Modi and Home Minister Amit Shah campaigned extensively in the state. The BJP tried to turn it into a Modi versus Congress contest, but the Congress focused on Thakur. Some BJP leaders said that Thakur was not assertive enough to say no to the central leadership, which picked candidates ignoring local inputs.
This election also marked a generational change in the absence of stalwarts like chief ministers Virbhadra Singh, who died in July 2021, and the BJP’s Prem Kumar Dhumal, who bowed out of the campaign ahead of the elections. The Congress’s decision to give the Mandi Lok Sabha ticket to Singh’s widow Pratibha, and also make her state party president, was a signal to those who had fond memories of the former six-time chief minister.
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While the BJP was better organised and had more star campaigners, the Congress’s low-key and house-to-house campaign helped it touch base with a large number of people and convey its promises personally.
The party also kept factionalism in check as the leaders knew they would sink together if they made their ambitions public. The BJP, on the other hand, had 21 of its rebels contesting against official candidates; three of the rebels won.
What has come as a surprise is the AAP’s performance. The party that won the bordering state of Punjab, which also shares cultural ties with Himachal, could not win a single seat. When THE WEEK had visited the state at the height of the campaign, the AAP was missing in action. “After much hype, the AAP withdrew from the contest,” said Chauhan. “All its candidates are losing their deposits.”
After the results, Congress state in-charge Rajeev Shukla credited Priyanka Gandhi Vadra for the victory. In the absence of her brother Rahul, who was busy with the Bharat Jodo Yatra, Priyanka was the face of the campaign. Also, it helped that she has a house in Shimla.
Among the frontrunners for the chief minister’s post are Sukhvinder Singh Sukhu, Mukesh Agnihotri and Pratibha Singh (though she is not an MLA). The chief minister will be picked following consultations between the MLAs and the party high command. Barring the BJP’s Shanta Kumar, Himachal has seen only Rajputs as chief ministers; they are the dominant community.
The big task for the new government, apart from fulfilling its 10 guarantees, would be to tackle the rising drug problem in the state.