The Congress’s win in Himachal Pradesh can be attributed to a series of factors which includes its promise of an old pension scheme for 1,50,000 government employees, anti-incumbency linked to the poor performance of the Jai Ram Thakur government, and also intra-party factionalism within the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). The result becomes more mortifying for the BJP as its national president, J.P. Nadda, is from the State.
The elections were fought on the fascinating narrative of “Riwaj Badlega versus Raaj Badlega (change of tradition versus change of government”). Speculation by a number of political analysts and the media, of a BJP win with an absolute majority, has been proven wrong. Of the 68 Assembly seats, the Congress won 40, forming an absolute majority. What has been established is that the State has a stable bi-party system. And despite its propaganda and large-scale canvassing, the Aam Aadmi Party did not emerge as the inﬂuential third force.
The winning factor
The State, till 2017, was governed on largely centrist lines but with a slight shift towards regionalism. After 2017 and Prem Kumar Dhumal’s shocking defeat, things changed and Himachal Pradesh got a Chief Minister, Jai Ram Thakur, who had been handpicked by the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh to take forward a Hindutva narrative that has not been really touched upon by earlier BJP governments. Mr. Dhumal, for instance, did not have an RSS background, but took a regional approach. Shanta Kumar, another BJP Chief Minister with an RSS touch, believed that Hindutva would not work in the State.
“Himachaliyat” encapsulates the idea that the region and its people will decide their future without outside interference. It also exemplifies a diverse, harmonious culture, evident in the local festivals, language dialects, cuisine and clothing. It is clear, as Vishal Sharma, the researcher and analyst coordinator of HPCC, emphasised, that the idea of Himachaliyat has scored over Hindutva in the State, with the Congress winning the war of the narrative
For the BJP, while anti-incumbency, crime and corruption and a strong national leadership and organisation were the guiding factors that led to its victory in 2017, it was a different story this time. For the people, it was a choice between the narrative of Hindutva and the counter-narrative of the Opposition, which they found in the promise of an old pension scheme for government employees, unemployment, price rise, and Himachali sub-nationalism. Being rooted as a “Himachali” as a way to resolving local issues appears to have struck a chord rather than being divided into castes and communities (Brahmins, Thakurs, Punjabi refugees, Khatris, Soods, Mahajans, Gaddis, Gujjars, Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes) and religious identities.
The BJP’s narrative was about a Uniform Civil Code, Ram Mandir, Article 370 and ST status for the Hatti community to oblige the upper castes of Sirmour district.
‘Agnipath’, unemployment and graft
In Himachal Pradesh, a comparatively larger portion of its population is in government service and the public sector (about 4.15 lakh employees and pensioners, or about 10% of the population), thus playing a significant role in any election. Another major issue was the recently launched ‘Agnipath recruitment scheme’ in the defence services. The State is estimated to have around 2.8 lakh people in the defence services or who are ex-servicemen. Of them, 80% are from the Kangra, Una and Hamirpur districts. There are also eight lakh people who are unemployed and registered in employment exchanges across the State.
Corruption also had an impact where in the past five years, there has been the university recruitment scam, the police recruitment scam and the sanitisers scam (during the COVID-19 pandemic). A Shimla-based civil society organisation, the “Forum Against Corruption”, has been in the forefront in highlighting discrepancies in university professors’ recruitment, where merit and excellence were ignored. It was because of the police recruitment scam that the BJP faced youth resentment as well.
There was also the handling of the apple growers’ protest by the BJP. The fruit growers of Himachal Pradesh constitute a powerful pressure group in the apple growing regions of Shimla, Kullu, Kinnaur and Madi districts. In August, under the “Sanyukt Kisan Manch”, fruit growers and farmers convened in Shimla to push for a resolution of their long-pending demands which include an increase in the minimum support price (based on the quality of the fruit and the formula in Kashmir), restoration of subsidies on fungicides, insecticides, and other chemical fertilizers, reduction in Goods and Services Tax on packaging material, and a ban on imported apples.
The apple growing regions cover nearly 17 Assembly segments, in Kinnaur, Kullu and Mandi, with Shimla being a major apple-growing region. They play and have played a significant role in shaping the State’s political contours, especially in old Himachal. Apple sales — the apple economy is valued at ₹6,000-crore — contribute to 13.5% of the State’s GDP. Farmers are exploited by commission agents in mandis, even as the Agricultural Produce Market Committees (APMCs) remain a mute spectator.
Himachal Pradesh will retain its tag as a ‘Riwaj’ of change provided there is no split in the Congress. The win has opened the contest for chief ministership in the Congress, which is going to be a difficult task for the central Congress committee and the Pradesh Congress Committee to resolve.
Devender Sharma is Assistant Professor in Political Science, Government College, Shimla, Himachal Pradesh