With just a few days left for the Election Commission of India (ECI) to announce the 68-member assembly, the two main political rivals are locking horns over who will become the real champion of the state’s power. There are two burning questions. Will the BJP manage to redo Uttar Pradesh and Uttarakhand in Himachal Pradesh—‘riwaaz badalenge (change the custom)’ — as their poll slogan states? Or will the Congress regain power to make a comeback in absence of its old war horse like late Virbhadra Singh, who had capacity to turn the tables on the BJP?
The BJP and Congress since 1985 have been forming alternate governments in the state. This time, the BJP is quite sure about Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s magic working once again in the hill state despite ‘not-so-impressive’ a performance as PM Modi or Home Minister Amit Shah—then BJP national president—had promised in 2017 polls. Buoyed by its victory in four state assembly polls, held in February-March 2022 and ongoing crisis in the Congress over presidential election, the BJP is hopeful about changing the custom—riwaaz.
But the Congress is confident about toppling the incumbent party, by banking on an anti-incumbency factor and infighting in the BJP. The Congress also feels that its victory in the Mandi Lok Sabha bypoll and three assembly constituencies in 2021 will help in ousting Jai Ram Thakur.
Yet, ahead of the elections, the BJP bid to create demoralisation in the Congress by poaching its sitting MLAs and leaders in the state is another potent weapon being tried ahead of the elections in Himachal Pradesh. Two sitting MLAs, two PCC working presidents, a former MLA and several other district Congress leaders have already joined the BJP.
Last week’s surprise about Harsh Mahajan, a former cabinet minister and close confidant of Virbhadra Singh, has sent ripples in his native town of Chamba. The question is whether Mahajan, who had declined to contest assembly polls twice even at Virbhadra Singh’s asking, will be fielded by the BJP. And if yes, then where? Chamba, Shimla (urban) or Banikhet? That will result in the uprootal of existing party aspirants for MLA tickets.
Former minister Anil Sharma, who is former Communication minister Pandit Sukh Ram’s son, has been spotted on more occasions with Chief Minister Jai Ram Thakur than Congress leaders. His meeting with Congress interim president Sonia Gandhi last month was perceived as unsavoury by top BJP leadership and its cadres in Mandi. Sharma had joined the BJP ahead of 2017 polls and was inducted as cabinet minister in Jai Ram Thakur government, but had to resign after his son Aashray chose to contest the Mandi Lok Sabha polls in 2019 on a Congress ticket. Since then, Sharma has been on a rebellion course.
Speculations are rife that another ex-Congress minister from Kangra is exploring his chances with the BJP to contest the next election should Congress deny him ticket. “They may be keen to quit the Congress for the BJP, but it could be rather foolish to induct everyone in the party. Our current candidates will be deprived of tickets. The fact remains that the Congress is an edifice of under collapse. People are leaving the party after seeing their future in dark,” says Chief Minister Jai Ram Thakur.
In the case of Lakhwinder Rana, a two-time Congress MLA from Nalagarh, a revolt-like situation is brewing in the BJP over his induction into the party, as former MLA KL Thakur was perceived to be the rightful claimant to the party ticket. Thakur’s supporters openly clashed with those of Rana’s in presence of the Chief Minister at a public function recently. “My whole loyalty and support is with the party and leadership but the decision to admit Rana into the BJP is certainly troublesome, not alone for me but the whole party unit in the constituency. The party surveys about the tickets have put me at the top but Rana is now spreading false formation as having been promised the ticket for next poll” rues Thakur.
Thakur recalls having given the highest ever lead of 40,000 votes to the party in 2019 Lok Sabha polls, and later ensured victory of BJP-backed candidates in local urban bodies and Panchayat polls. Rana has come as a paratrooper. Most of his workers have stayed back in the Congress.
Again, the Pawan Kajal’s entry into the BJP was not welcome by cadres, despite his first win at the 2012 election in his home turf of Kangra, as they feel he has jeopardised the chances of BJP aspirants. Yet the BJP, knowing his value as an OBC leader in the politically sensitive Kangra, are continuing to pacify the party cadres.
The Congress alleged at a rally in Hamirpur that the BJP was in panic about losing power, and thus making a desperate bid to “buy” Congress MLAs and field them in the polls. Sitting Congress MLA from Kasumpti (Shimla) Anirudh Singh, who is also AICC secretary, revealed two days back that he was called to Chief Minister’s office and asked to quit the Congress and contest on the BJP ticket.
The Himachal CM has tried to pacify enraged party leaders in most of the areas where the Congress MLAs, former MLAs or independents have joined, asserting that none of them are promised party tickets. “The decision on allotments of tickets will be taken as per defined procedures of the organisation looking into winnability and other factors,” maintains state BJP president Suresh Kashyap.