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Himachal Pradesh Goes To Vote, What Will Change? Raaj Or Riwaaj?

In Himachal Pradesh, BJP faces the tough challenges of OPS, anti-incumbency, and the towering legacy of Congress leader Virbhadra Singh. Will the Modi wave survive in the hills this time or will the Congress prove itself worthy of the test?

2022 Himachal Assembly Election
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History is on the Congress' side. Every five years Himachal Pradesh sees an election that appears like a door rotating, pushing out the incumbent party while bringing in the Opposition to power. 

And this year, in comes the Congress, and out goes the BJP. The trend is a reality and that’s why the Congress is confident – Riwaaz Nahi, Raaj Badlega, a counter to BJP’s Riwaaz Badal Raha Hai campaign slogan.

But, the BJP is hoping to turn the tables on the Congress. 

That is why the assembly elections in Himachal Pradesh have become more interesting and also important this time.

With two traditional opponents absent, the legacies of Virbhadra Singh, a six-time Congress Chief Minister, and BJP veteran Prem Kumar Dhumal competing in the election, poll watchers predict that the people in Himachal Pradesh may have some curve balls up their sleeve.

As more than 55 lakh voters exercising their franchise to elect out of 412 candidates, just 24 of them women, the focus is definitely on the ruling BJP for two big factors.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi has campaigned extensively for the party, telling the voters at Solan that ‘every vote you cast in November 12 polling will come to me". 

Hours before the polling, Modi issued an appeal to the voters reminding them once again that "Kamal ke phool ko diya gaya ek ek vote sidhe meri shakti badeyga" (Every single vote for lotus will give me strength to do more for the state). 

With this, the Prime Minister has been trying to pitch himself as a factor in the polls and shifting the electoral gear to mega projects he sanctioned for the state. "The previous government (Congress) created hurdles in implementing central schemes. These got revived after 2017 when the BJP's returned," Modi said.

The fact that BJP's national president JP Nadda hails from Himachal Pradesh has also made it a high-stake prestige battle for the BJP, which has already started preparing for 2024.

Right now Chief Minister Jai Ram Thakur, who is leading the BJP to the polls for the first time after his five-year term, seems to have been relegated to the back seat.

“Modi ji, his leadership and an emotional bond with the state will be a factor apart from our double engine government,” Thakur had told Outlook in an exclusive interview in the run up to the polls.

The Congress, on the other hand, is banking on the history of rotating governments and anti-incumbency as the party awaits the crucial election results.

Its victory in four by-elections in November 2021 including the Parliamentary bypoll for Mandi, a constituency in the Chief Minister’s home district, was a high point for the Congress with many predicting that the state is likely to retain the trend of alternating governments and drive the BJP out of power.

The main roadblock in the  BJP's plan to change the "Riwaaz" in Himachal Pradesh is perhaps the presence of 21 rebel candidates in the fray, pointing to simmering disenchantment, not just among the aspirants but also among the people.

Eleven sitting MLAs in the BJP were denied tickets ahead of the 2022 assembly elections because of the anti-incumbency factor. Two ministers shifted to different constituencies and one, Mohinder Singh, who held the Horticulture portfolio chose to keep himself out of the poll. His candidature was addversely impacted by the plight and anger of the apple growers and other controversies relating to his work.

One rebel. Kripal Parmar, a former Rajya Sabha member contesting against incumbent minister Rakesh Pathania, refused to budge even when Prime Minister Narendra Modi called him, seemingly to urge him to change his mind.

Hoshiar Singh, an independent who returned to the BJP before the poll but was denied a ticket later, looks comfortable to win against the BJP candidate. “The rebellions look like a third party in the fray. This could water down the BJP's hopes to return to power in this election,” veteran Himachali journalist Prakash Lohumi, tells Outlook.

He recalls how in 1967, a record 16 rebels (Independents) got elected to a 60-member house. It was not BJP but Jan Sangh at the time which could only win seven seats over Congress’s 34. The CPM won two seats while Swatantra Party clinched one. He feels that this year, the situation looks similar again.

In absence of any wave either for the BJP or the Congress, the direction the electoral results may take remains the biggest question. As per preliminary reports and analyses, voters seem unhappy with the present dispensation including the leadership, inflation, unemployment, poor governance and the Old Pension Scheme (OPS), which the BJP never thought could be such a big poll issue, is the single most potent weapon in the hands of the Congress.

“We will restore the OPS in the first meeting of the new Cabinet. This is a guarantee we have given in manifesto,” Pratibha Singh, PCC president, has promised.

The BJP is also quietly worried about losing ground because of OPS.

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With the elections being contested on local issues, inflation and unemployment may become surprisingly big issues that influence the polls results.

“Our promise to give Rs 1,500 to every woman in the age group of 18 to 60 years has made an impact in the minds of women voters,” Chhattisgarh Chief minister Bhupesh Baghel who is the election in-charge of Congress party in Himachal Pradesh, asserts.

In 2014 and 2019, the decisive "Modi wave" helped the BJP to win all four Lok Sabha seats, and even facilitated the BJP's return to power in the state in 2017. With the Congress pinning its hopes on OPS, local issues, and the unflinching legacy of its stalwart leader Virbhadra Singh, the hills this time look too high even for the Modi wave to climb.

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