Elections to the 68-member Legislative Assembly in Himachal Pradesh are scheduled to take place in November this year. The state, which has widespread anti-incumbency, has not allowed any party to be re-elected to power since 1985. The Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), which won the state in 2017, securing 44 seats and a vote share of 48.79 per cent, is hoping to win again this time. The party has said that it will be the first in 37 years to be reelected in the state, due to the development work done under the tenure of the incumbent Chief Minister. Politics in the state has been largely bipolar, with a shift in governments from the Indian National Congress (INC) and the BJP with every successive election. The INC, which won 21 seats in the 2017 elections, managed to retain a majority of its vote share, despite not being re-elected to power. The party is focusing its campaign on the failures of the BJP. However, internal factionalism in the party created by the power vacuum after the demise of former Chief Minister Virbhadra Singh is a hindrance to the party’s efficient victory in the state. Issues such as rising inflation, unemployment, lack of fair price of fruits, and caste inequality are the major facets voters are focusing on in the upcoming elections.
BJP ‘creating history’?
The BJP’s overall narrative will be centred around the development of Himachal Pradesh carried out by the state government in the past term with the support of the central government. The party is engaging in micro-level planning to reach voters through its various party wings at the booth level in the run-up to the Assembly polls. All key party wings, including the Bharatiya Janata Yuva Morcha, Kisan Morcha, Mahila Morcha, and Scheduled Caste Morcha are working at the booth level to educate voters about the government’s achievements. They’re also emphasising the welfare schemes launched by the government in order to garner support for the party. The BJP launched its “One Booth 20 Youth” campaign aiming to connect with 20 youth at each of the 7,500 polling booths in the state, in an attempt to win them over ahead of the polls.
While the party will be contesting the elections under the leadership of incumbent Chief Minister Jai Ram Thakur, it has announced the Chief Ministerial candidate will only be declared after the results of the Assembly elections have come through. This is perhaps to avoid a repeat of 2017, when, despite the party winning a majority, the BJP’s Chief Minister candidate Prem Kumal Dhumal was defeated.
During the 2017 elections, the party’s vision document included promises such as tackling forest mafia, illegal mining, and improving women’s safety. Although the party is yet to launch its official manifesto for 2022, it is likely to base its campaign on the schemes promised by the incumbent government during the 2022-23 budget session. This includes employment schemes, subsidies on 125 units of electricity, free water supply in rural areas, and reduced bus fares for women. The party will be taking suggestions from the general electorate for its manifesto and has set up a team of 21 subcommittees to seek suggestions and set up a web portal for the same.
It should be noted, however. that the BJP lost all four by-poll elections held in the state in October last year. Political analysts stated that the results of the by-polls were affected by rising resentment against the incumbent government, in part due to issues such as poor governance, rising prices, and rising unemployment.
INC: Attempt To Return
The Congress, led by state party president Kuldeep Singh Rathore, kickstarted a statewide padayatra and voter awareness campaign to consolidate its support base for the upcoming elections. The INC, motivated by their win across three Assembly seats and one Lok Sabha seat during the 2021 by-polls, is focusing its campaign narrative on the failures of the BJP government in the past term. The party is reaching out to the public to spread awareness about the INC’s ideologies and policies.
INC’s promises include addressing the pressing issues of inflation and unemployment, both of which are at its peak in the state. Party Chief Pratibha Singh has promised five lakh jobs if the party is voted to power in the state. Other promises include 300 units of free electricity and a 1,500 monthly allowance for women. The party has promised to implement the Old Pension Scheme (OPS) within ten days of being re-elected, along with an implementation of fair prices for crops and fruits, free mobile clinics, and the establishment of English-medium schools in each constituency.
However, despite these attempts, with the power vacuum left in the state after the demise of former Chief Minister Virbhadra Singh in 2021 and the factionalism within the party, the INC faces difficult times ahead trying to defeat the election machinery of the BJP in the state. After the demise of Virbhadra Singh, the BJP reshuffled its organisational structure, and made Pratibha Singh, the wife of former Chief Minister late Virbhadra Singh, the state president. The move has given rise to further factionalism in the party.
What are the major issues for voters?
One of the major issues in the state has been the unequal development across social groups in the state. Those belonging to Scheduled Tribe (ST) and Scheduled Caste (SC) groups record lower than average rates of education and schooling and are lacking in access to basic amenities and job opportunities. There is also a rural-urban divide in access to drinking water, sanitation, and electricity.
The state records a very high unemployment rate, with 8.82 lakh people being unemployed in March 2022. Other major issues include the demand for the implementation of the OPS, which has led to a major conflict between the government employees, who make up over two lakh of the population. Parties are also using issues of caste and religion, including the passing of the forced-conversion bill earlier this year, and the granting of ST status to members of the Hatti community to sway votes in their favour for the upcoming polls.
The Aam Aadmi Party (AAP), motivated by its victory in nbouring Punjab, is attempting to make inroads in the hill state. The party is offering its “Delhi Model” of governance, including the promise of freebies such as water and electricity, in an attempt to woo voters in the state. However, despite their attempts, the 2022 polls are likely to be a tough fight primarily between the INC and the BJP in Himachal Pradesh.