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Congress Reinvents Itself In Himachal, Victory Goes To Grassroots Cadre Not Gandhis

Though the Congress has been routed in Gujarat by the BJP, its impressive win in Himachal has given it a cause to cheer

Congress Reinvents Itself In Himachal, Victory Goes To Grassroots Cadre Not Gandhis
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On surface, the assembly elections have yielded an equal score, with both the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and the Indian National Congress winning one state each. If one party has stormed Gujarat, the other’s win in Himachal Pradesh is also impressive. The Congress won 15 more seats than the ruling BJP in a small Assembly of 68. Its victory cannot be discounted merely because the state has returned the opposition party in elections for nearly four decades. The BJP, led by Prime Minister Narendra Modi, had campaigned hard in Himachal and deployed a range of Union ministers. If Gujarat is a prestige state for Modi, Himachal is the home state of party president J.P. Nadda. Besides, Modi, who had long worked in the state as party observer, calls Himachal his ‘second home’. During his campaigning, Modi had invoked his personal bonding, even telling people that every vote they cast for ‘Lotus’ will eventually strengthen him.

When Gujarat remained under Modi’s influence over the last two decades, Himachal has trounced the BJP at a time when the Congress party was far weaker and had no campaigner to match his stature and campaign style. For the first time in several decades, the Congress did not have the veteran leader Virbhadra Singh, who died last year, to lead. The Congress fought without a chief ministerial face, without a strong unified leadership, and oscillated among three major camps—PCC president Pratibha Singh, former PCC president Sukhwinder Singh Sukhu and the Leader of Opposition Mukesh Agnihotri. Outgoing Chief Minister Jairam Thakur grudgingly admitted after the loss, “Our poll preparedness was much better than the Congress.”

For a party that prides itself on mammoth and well-oiled election machinery, the sight of as many as eight of the 11 cabinet ministers losing should cause much discomfort. The ninth one, senior cabinet minister Mahinder Singh, who fielded his son Rajat Thakur to contest in his place, lost the seat to the Congress, as did the former state BJP president Dr Rajeev Bindal. Two ministers—Suresh Bhardwaj and Rakesh Pathania—even changed their seats before the election to avoid anti-incumbency and yet it did not help.

The BJP’s woes had begun before the elections when as many as 21 rebel party leaders contested as independents, with three of them eventually defeating their rival BJP candidates. In Kangra, a district known for its importance in the government formation, two cabinet ministers lost their seats, while party rebel Hoshiar Singh won.

In fact, the BJP had faced troubles early last year when it lost the 2021 bypolls for three assembly seats and one Lok Sabha seat at Mandi—chief minister’s home district.

The Congress’s victory is the first after the 2018 assembly polls in Chhattisgarh, Rajasthan and Madhya Pradesh three years ago. A victory that genuinely belongs to the grassroots cadre and cannot be customarily credited to Sonia or Rahul Gandhi, both of whom did not campaign in the state. However, Priyanka Gandhi had addressed six rallies.

Also note that Himachal is among the few states the BJP has not been able to polarise along communal lines, a card they could skilfully master in the neighbouring hill state of Uttarakhand. The space that the substantial Muslim population in the plains of Uttarakhand offers is not available in Himachal. It is a pitch that does not lend much support to the BJP’s most formidable weapon. The party lost a fight on non-emotive and genuine electoral issues like resentment among apple growers against government policies, the old pension scheme (OPS) and the Agnipath scheme, as government employees and servicemen form a large chunk of the vote bank in Himachal. There are more than 1.60 lakh government employees and an equal number of pensioners in the state. “The OPS is one of the 10 guarantees the party has given in the poll manifesto. The OPS will be restored in the first cabinet meeting of the new government,” says Agnihotri, a chief ministerial aspirant along with Pratibha Singh and Sukhwinder Sukhu.

A victory that genuinely belongs to the grassroots cadre and cannot be customarily credited to Sonia or Rahul Gandhi, both of whom did not campaign in the state.

Chief Minister Thakur is, in fact, said to have tried to convince the BJP high command to address the resentment over the OPS in the state, but he could not get any favourable response.

“We have to analyse as to why the situation has come to this level,” rues Thakur. So, while no incumbent government has returned to power in the state since 1985, as even stalwarts like Virbhadra Singh and Prem Kumar Dhumal had to suffer defeat, the Congress has made a genuine comeback.

However, one of the yardsticks to decode the two states is the nature of the contest. The Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) that had once begun its ambitious campaigns in both Himachal and Gujarat later confined itself only to Modi’s home state. Ignoring Himachal, the AAP concentrated its entire energies on Gujarat. While the BJP had been dismissing the AAP, it managed to get an impressive 12.9 per cent votes. For a party that began its electoral journey in the country just a decade ago, such a performance in the BJP’s strongest state merits attention. It did not, of course, have any impact on the BJP’s prospects, which recorded a phenomenal victory with a record 156 seats in the assembly of 182. But the AAP considerably diminished the Congress’s share and, after Delhi and Punjab, again showed its potential to damage India’s oldest party.

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Unstoppable: BJP leaders in Gandhinagar celebrate the landslide win Photo: PTI

The Congress suffered its most humiliating defeat in Gujarat bagging only 17 seats against its poll tally of 77 seats in 2017. The party had received 41.4 per cent votes in 2017 assembly polls, and the BJP got 49.1 per cent. This year, Congress’ vote share has shrunk to 27.3 per cent, while the BJP’s has jumped to over 52 per cent.

Though the AAP has only five MLAs, it will debut in the state Assembly with a swagger. Its chief ministerial face Isudan Gadhvi lost to the BJP’s Mulubhai Bera in Khambhalia, but Gadhvi with 59,089 votes has beaten the Congress’s sitting MLA Vikrambhai Madam, who polled 44,526 votes. Gadhvi also proved the BJP’s chief spokesperson Yamal Vyas, who had said that the AAP CM candidate would come third, wrong. “They are not going to get a single seat,” Vyas had told Outlook before elections. The AAP has polled more votes than the Congress in over 30 seats.

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But the BJP’s invincibility is not merely due to the AAP denting the Congress’ share. The BJP’s grip over Gujarat is absolute, attained after decades of ground work and astute strategies. It can change a chief minister mid-term, bring a new cabinet and yet secure 85 per cent of the seats.

It leaves the Congress with serious questions. The hopes it had raised in 2017 by coming close to the BJP are in smithereens. The heat of the Patidar movement is over, so is the party’s steam. Among the few saving graces is the victory of Jignesh Mevani, Congress’s working president, who managed to retain his Vadgam seat in Banaskantha district. The Dalit leader won a close contest with the BJP candidate Manibhai Jethabhai Vaghela by around 5,000 votes. This would be the second term for Mevani. In 2017, when he decided to contest from the reserved seat, the Congress extended support by not filing any nomination. He formally joined the Congress in April this year, the month Vaghela left the party and joined the BJP. His two contemporaries, OBC leader Alpesh Thakor and Patidar leader Hardik Patel, who were earlier with the Congress and left the party before the 2019 Lok Sabha  elections, won on BJP tickets this time. Jignesh remains the most credible youth face of the Congress in Gujarat now, and deserves greater responsibility to nurture a young crop of party members.

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The Congress victory over the BJP in Himachal should enhance the party’s sagging morale and prepare it for a better fight next year.

The results in these two states may also have an impact on national politics. First, it will enhance Chhattisgarh Chief Minister Bhupesh Baghel’s stature. As the party’s Himachal in-charge, he was sent to the hill state just months before the elections. His team extensively worked in the state. He himself held several rallies and earned a name for himself both among the Himachal voters and in the state party unit. On the eve of election results, he had been preparing to shift the winning MLAs to Chandigarh to prevent any poaching by the BJP, but the decisive mandate foreclosed the possibility. “We have successfully wrested Himachal Pradesh from the BJP,” says Baghel.

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He has been facing continuous dissent by his powerful minister T.S. Singh Deo, who has often gone to the high command pressing for a regime change in the state. The Himachal victory should cement Baghel’s claim over his state and persuade the party to ensure that the Congress goes to polls in Chhattisgarh next year under his leadership.

Besides, four states—Tripura, Meghalaya, Nagaland and Karnataka—are voting early next year. All these states have a BJP alliance in power. The Congress victory over the BJP in Himachal should enhance the party’s sagging morale and prepare it for a better fight next year. Party leaders also believe that the BJP’s spectacular performance in Gujarat may not have any impact in the Northeast. “The BJP’s Gujarat win will not impact us negatively. In fact, we have snatched one state from the BJP,” Tripura Congress MLA Sudip Roy Barman tells Outlook. “The elections in Himachal Pradesh and MCD elections of Delhi indicate that people have expressed no confidence in Modi,” he added.

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The issues in Nagaland are even more different.  “Our fight is different. We don’t want the Government of India to decide our future. The BJP is winning in Gujarat because PM Modi hails from there. Here people want a solution of the decade-long Naga issue. So, the result of Gujarat is not going to affect the elections here,” says K. Therie, president of the Nagaland Pradesh Congress Committee.

A somewhat greater impact of the Gujarat results can be felt in Meghalaya, where the BJP is planning to contest the polls alone by pulling out of the NPP-led Meghalaya Democratic Alliance. The biggest test, however, lies in Karnataka, where the Congress is fancying its chance of dislodging the ruling BJP.

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While the BJP’s Gujarat win was a foregone conclusion, the Himachal victory has given the Congress a crucial space to revive itself. However, the party should introspect on the impact the AAP could have had in Himachal had it contested with full vigour. The Congress history shows that its decay begins when a bipolar fight turns triangular by the arrival of another party, from Samajwadi Party in Uttar Pradesh to the AAP in Punjab. Seen thus, the Himachal cushion may not be durable.

(This appeared in the print edition as "A Mixed Bag")

Ashutosh Bhardwaj, Ashwani Sharma & Syeda Ambia Zahan

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