People of Himachal will never disappoint Modi: CM Jai Ram Thakur

We are not taking anyone lightly in the assembly elections, he says

Jai Ram Thakur | Sanjay Ahlawat Jai Ram Thakur | Sanjay Ahlawat

THE HIMACHAL PRADESH assembly elections, scheduled to be held in November, are likely to witness a triangular contest, a first for the state. The Congress and the Aam Aadmi Party are making massive efforts to unseat the BJP. With just four months to go, Chief Minister Jai Ram Thakur is busy touring the state to hard sell his government’s achievements. THE WEEK caught up with Thakur while he was in Delhi to attend the recent NITI Aayog meeting which was chaired by Prime Minister Narendra Modi. Excerpts from an interview:

Q/As chief minister, what has been your biggest challenge and achievement?

A/The biggest challenge has been Covid-19, which impacted the economy, and [during which the] working period was curtailed. The speed of the targeted projects was disturbed a bit. [But] despite Covid-19, we handled the economy very well; we were the first state to administer the first and the second dose [of the vaccine]. We have been successful to a great extent in completing all the new initiatives we started, and have achieved the target of bringing in private sector investment.

Q/India is celebrating 75 years of independence. What does this mean for Himachal Pradesh?

A/We celebrated 50 years of statehood last year. Now, we will celebrate 75 years of organisation. (In April 1948, the chief commissioner’s province of Himachal Pradesh came into being.) We have planned 75 events in all 68 assembly constituencies, wherein we will talk about Himachal’s journey... especially [to] the younger generation. At that time, the literacy rate was a mere 4.2 per cent; it is now 83 per cent. There were only 228km of roads; now it is more than 39,500km. For all this, the credit goes to the people of the state and not to any leader.

In Haryana and Uttarakhand, where governments used to change every five years, the BJP came to power for the second time. This trend will continue in Himachal.
In Himachal Pradesh, the margin of victory is 3 per cent to 4 per cent. In such a scenario, we are not taking anyone lightly.

Q/The state has elected parties to power alternately in the past three decades. How big is the challenge?

A/It is a challenge, no two ways about it. We have worked with honesty, and the state has grown and progressed. We have been able to bring development with the help of the Modi government. For the state’s future, Himachal needs the Modi government. Himachal cannot develop based on its own resources. It needs help from the Centre. Secondly, in our neighbouring states of Haryana and Uttarakhand, where governments used to change every five years, the BJP came to power for the second time. This trend will continue in Himachal.

Q/What will be your big promise before the elections?

A/There cannot be a big promise. What we are saying is that the future of the state can be secured when we return to power. We are taking to the people what we have done till now. We are asking the people to give us another chance. Moreover, PM Modi has a huge, emotional connect with the state. The people of the state will never disappoint him.

Q/Who is your main opponent—the Congress or the AAP?

A/Keeping in mind Himachal’s history, the contest has always been between the BJP and the Congress. No third party has been successful in the state. The AAP is trying, but it is very difficult for them.

Q/Even Delhi and Punjab had a history of bipolar contests, but the AAP won there.

A/In Himachal Pradesh, the margin of victory is 3 per cent to 4 per cent. In such a scenario, we are not taking anyone lightly. We are making full preparations and moving ahead. We have worked honestly for the poor. The people of Himachal will bless us.

Q/The BJP lost the byelections to four seats last November. The Congress says it is an indicator of what will happen in 2022.

A/Those polls were necessitated by the deaths of three big leaders, of whom two were from the Congress—Virbhadra Singh and Sujan Singh Pathania. That impacted the elections. The Congress won on a sympathy wave. But, this time, there will be no such atmosphere; the elections will be fought on issues.

Q/Is the question of the chief minister candidate settled?

A/We will leave that decision to the party high command. Our responsibility is to bring back the BJP government.

Central push: Prime Minister Narendra Modi during the inauguration of the Atal Tunnel in Manali in 2020 | PTI Central push: Prime Minister Narendra Modi during the inauguration of the Atal Tunnel in Manali in 2020 | PTI

Q/These polls will see a generational change as state veterans will no longer be there.

A/If you look at the state’s polity, relatively younger leaders are coming forward. The change is visible.

Q/You have brought up the uniform civil code. What has been done so far?

A/We have said that we will not take any step in haste. We will first study the code in detail. I believe we should move forward on this.

Q/Will the state’s tribal communities and others agree to it?

A/That is why it is important to assess, and not take any step in haste.

Q/Government employees form a big chunk of the state’s population that is demanding the old pension scheme. What is your stance on this?

A/We have set up a committee. The old pension scheme was discontinued when the Congress was in power and Virbhadra Singh was chief minister. The Congress has been in power twice since then. Their leaders did not ask for the OPS. Now, Congress leaders are asking for it. If the Congress is going to contest elections on Virbhadra’s legacy, aren’t they they dishonouring him [by demanding the OPS]? We are in talks with the employees, and will see what the solution can be. The Congress says it will implement the scheme, but can it tell us if the OPS has been started in Rajasthan or Chhattisgarh?

Q/The state’s main industry, tourism, was under stress because of the pandemic. Have things improved?

A/We are happy that we have seen a very positive trend. A large number of tourists have come to the state. Our tourism units are doing well.

Q/Apple growers are on a warpath, demanding relief from the Centre and the state.

A/They are angry as GST has been increased to 18 per cent from 12 per cent on the packaging material. When the issue came to us, we said we will compensate them. The issue should have been resolved then, but now it is turning political as the Congress and the CPI(M) have come together ahead of the elections. This is not correct. Never before in the state has the government made an attempt to compensate the people for an increase in GST rates.

Q/Climate change and rapid urbanisation pose a threat to the ecologically sensitive state. Your take?

A/The environmental issues will be a challenge in coming times; they may not be immediate. Rapid urbanisation will cause damage to the state. In the NITI Aayog meeting, PM Modi said there is migration from rural areas to the city for better amenities, and that we should aim to provide better facilities in rural areas. If people are still moving from villages to cities, then the city’s development should be planned.

In Himachal, the trend is different. People from rural areas go to a city for work, but return. The issue of migration is not there in the traditional sense.

Q/Can the changing law and order situation in neighbouring Punjab impact Himachal?

A/There will always be a chance. I hope that the new government in Punjab will handle the situation. In the past, there were a few incidents—like painting of Khalistani slogans and hoisting flags in Himachal. But we tackled it effectively. We put those people behind bars. But, in Punjab, no action has been taken against them. Some people are trying to disturb the atmosphere, but we are vigilant. We will deal with it strictly.