February 14, 2020
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A Bonfire Of Vanities

That obscure demon, anti-incumbency, stalks the BJP in Himachal and Modi's Hindutva campaign could be a dubious boon More Coverage

A Bonfire Of Vanities
A Bonfire Of Vanities
In Shimla, chief minister Prem Kumar Dhumal is hoping to pull off a miracle. Himachal Pradesh does not have the tradition of returning a party to power, but in the post-Gujarat scenario anything is possible. So, the chief minister has both his trumpcards on display at his office. One is a picture of Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee and the other is of Dhumal posing with Narendra Modi at Kargil. The chief minister openly admits he is relying on the two reigning deities of the BJP to pull off the impossible.

With Modi having promised to campaign, Dhumal's optimism has gone up. But the ground reality is not so comforting. The BJP and the Congress are in equal strength in the assembly—both have 31 seats each—and the BJP government survives thanks to Sukh Ram's Himachal Vikas Party (HVP). Yet, Dhumal says: "I believe a strong anti-terrorism plank can mobilise people in our favour." Maheshwar Singh, BJP MP from Mandi, agrees: "Narendra Modi is now in demand as a campaigner everywhere. He will talk about issues like terrorism. But no one can run a communal campaign in Himachal. In Kullu we have Gujjars and we don't even think of them as Muslims!"

Himachal's Congress strongman Virbhadra Singh scoffs at the BJP's evolving strategy: "It's a joke. The BJP here is a big joke. They're desperate and Modi as a messiah is the biggest joke." He admits that post-Gujarat, the BJP is more upbeat but heaps scorn on the attempt to make terrorism the poll plank. "From where will Modi and Dhumal import terrorism into Himachal? Will they import it from West Asia, from Afghanistan or Pakistan? I wonder if they have some ill-conceived plan to stage-manage some terrorist incident in the state. If they try it they will find us more than a match."

Though most observers say the Congress has an edge in Himachal, the visible tension between Virbhadra and state PCC chief Vidya Stokes has cast a shadow on the party's prospects. As former chief minister for 12 years, Virbhadra has tremendous control over the organisation and mlas. But he is way too independent to be a 10, Janpath man. Stokes is far closer to the Sonia Gandhi coterie and makes no secret of her chief ministerial ambitions: "It's a tradition in the Congress to never project a chief ministerial candidate before the polls. And it's also a tradition to make the state unit chief the CM."

Suspicious that the high command may deny him the CM's chair after a possible victory, Virbhadra told Outlook: "The Congress should revise its policy of not projecting a CM candidate." He also plans to renominate most sitting mlas and says "those who oppose this want to oust me. A section of my party has a common cause with the BJP. They would like to remove me from the scene in Himachal". He also scoffs at Stokes' chief ministerial ambitions. "I don't care if she becomes CM, PM or President of India. But such decisions are based on hard reality, not wishful thinking." There's also a swipe at the sycophancy within the Congress: "I know that while I am field-bound, some of my colleagues are Delhi-bound."

It'll be the Congress high command's decision on an alliance with Sukh Ram's party by the middle of next week that should give an indication of whether Virbhadra or Stokes is pulling more weight in Delhi. Though his party is still a part of the BJP government, Sukh Ram is desperately seeking an alliance with the Congress. "I was with the Congress for 35 years and have a greater affinity with them than the BJP," he says, adding that the Congress would do better than the BJP this time. But Virbhadra, who has an old grouse against Sukh Ram, is standing in the way of his plans. Says he: "Sukh Ram wants us for his own survival. But I see no benefit as his image is tainted and he's still a part of the BJP government which we will be attacking."

Stokes, however, clarifies: "If Sukh Ram goes alone he can cut into the anti-BJP vote. Virbhadra should get over his ego hassles and agree to an alliance with him." Sukh Ram, who could command up to 8 per cent of the vote, adds: "Virbhadra fears that I may not back his chief ministerial bid." Meanwhile, a desperate BJP is sending out feelers to the HVP but Sukh Ram does not seem interested. Dhumal told Outlook: "I never considered Sukh Ram's image a liability. We are grateful to him for supporting us till now." If an alliance with the Congress does not work out, Sukh Ram says he will go it alone.

The BJP is also worried about the rift between Dhumal and Union rural development minister Shanta Kumar, who was the first BJP CM of the state in the early '90s and has a strong base in Kangra. Shanta Kumar is believed to be unhappy with the evolving party strategy but has little choice but to go along with it. Though BJP leaders are never as vocal about their infighting as those in the Congress, party strategists worry that Shanta Kumar's supporters may quietly sabotage Dhumal's chances. Says a BJP leader: "Shanta Kumar has more potential to damage Dhumal while in the Congress Vidya Stokes is a relative lightweight."

With a high literacy rate of 75 per cent, the political awareness in Himachal is very high. Ballots are cast on governance and economic issues. One cause of worry for the BJP is that the government is the biggest employer in the state and middle-class votes are crucial. This section is apparently upset about declining interests rates in saving schemes and hikes in power and water tariff. Out of the state's 60-lakh strong population, 11 lakh are the educated unemployed and they can be expected to vote for change, say political observers. With the highest percentage of Hindus in the country, Himachal is also overwhelmingly upper-caste with a staggering 38 per cent Rajputs and 17 per cent Brahmins. Says J.P. Nadda, the state health minister: "We can't fool people here. They go for real work, not emotional issues."

Which is why Himachal is one state where the BJP has made valiant efforts to transform into a party of governance. The Dhumal government has performed well in areas like road construction and has built on the Congress' phenomenal achievements in rural electrification and education. That's why many Himachalis say it is unfortunate that the party is now resorting to a Hindutva platform. Says Sakhvinder Singh, the Youth Congress president: "Why should we discuss Modi here? You think our educated people won't see through the desperate attempt? And this is a state where society is organised according to Manu's laws. There's no communal feeling."

So, a Modi campaign bereft of a communalised atmosphere will certainly lose its sting. Many observers say it may even boomerang on the BJP. Particularly as the VHP and RSS are negligible here. Neither of them even have an office in the state capital, though some RSS shakhas are held. Historically, the RSS and Jan Sangh have always perceived Himachal through the prism of Punjab politics and opposed the merger of the hill areas of Punjab in 1966 with Himachal following the granting of full statehood in 1971. Their concern all along had been that Punjab should remain Hindu-dominated and any division of the state would give greater leverage to the Sikh community. That is why the RSS and VHP do not have strong roots in the hills of Himachal. Virbhadra goes out of his way to point out that the day Himachal was given full statehood, the Sangh parivar cadres protested and wore black bands.

So, everytime the BJP will raise the issue of Indian nationalism, the Congress will respond with Himachali pride. And for all the talk of Modi being the star campaigner, the BJP's election slogan has nothing to do with terrorism or Hindutva.Dhumal's slogan is: "Jo kaha/ woh kiya. Jo kahenge/ woh karenge (We did what we said and we'll do what we promise)." The Congress responds with "Kaam kiya hai/ kaam karenge. Jhoote vaade nahin karenge (We worked for you and will continue to do so. No false promises.)." Clearly, the BJP sees Modi as a mere icing on the cake. The real battle is over issues of development, unemployment and corruption.
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