Himachal Pradesh Election 2017: BJP left nothing to chance, but anti-incumbency factor did in lacklustre Congress

Congress appeared to have given up on Himachal Pradesh even before the Assembly elections were announced in the hill state. None of the party’s top leaders camped or campaigned in the state with even party president Rahul Gandhi paying just one visit to address a couple of election rallies.

File image of Virbhadra Singh. PTI

File image of incumbent Himachal Pradesh chief minister Virbhadra Singh. PTI

With the nation’s focus on Gujarat, and Rahul seeking to turn Congress' fortunes in that state, the entire responsibility for the party’s campaign in Himachal was left on old warhorse Chief Minister Virbhadra Singh, who was fighting with his back to the wall. This was six-time chief minister’s worst, and perhaps last innings, as he had little to showcase as his achievements during his latest tenure at the helm.

Himachal had not just been witnessing a revolving door Assembly elections since the late 70s. Singh and the BJP leader Prem Kumar Dhumal had been swapping the seat of power since 1983. Even though the revolving door had to stop—like it did for the Congress in Punjab during 2012 election—retaining power in Himachal was certainly an uphill task for the Congress.

In fact, it turned out to be an election in which neither the Congress nor the BJP offered anything exciting. It was more or less a contest between one anti-incumbency and the other: The anti-incumbency of Singh against that of Prime Minister Narendra Modi and the BJP at the Centre. Evidently, the anti-incumbency sentiment against the Singh government proved much stronger.

One of the major reasons why political observers and various opinion polls expressed little hope for the Congress was that, comparatively, the twin issues of demonetisation and the roll-out of Goods and Services Tax (GST) had little adverse impact in the state as compared to Gujarat.

Himachal does not have a strong vote bank of trading community which could have been affected by these two major factors. The most dominant of the factors in Himachal are government employees. Almost all households have at least one member as a government employee and one of the biggest aspirations of the youth is to land a government job. The employees have been one of the most important influencers in deciding election outcome. With the BJP at the Centre, they expect a better bonanza from a BJP government in the state.

Besides the lacklustre performance of the Singh government during its term, the deterioration in law and order situation could have been a contributory factor to its downfall. A couple of recent rape cases has put the government on the defensive. One of these, the Kotkhai rape case, involving a school girl, led to protest all across the state. There were rumours that some youth close to Singh’s son Vikramaditya, were involved and they were being protected by the state police.

The state police picked up half a dozen youth from another state, who were employed in an apple orchard, and charged them with rape and murder of the victim. One of these youth died in police custody, which led to widespread protests. Singh, to his credit, sought a CBI inquiry into the incident. The CBI arrested an Inspector General of Police (IGP) and a Senior Superintendent of Police (SSP) and charged them with botching up the rape investigation and for killing a suspect in custody. While it declared the arrested youth innocent, the CBI has, so far, been unable to identify the culprits.

This may have proved the last nail in the coffin of the Congress government, but it also did nothing great during the five-year rule. It was banking on the personal appeal of Singh, popularly called Raja Saheb, and on his alleged victimisation by the NDA government at the Centre which slapped cases of corruption and financial irregularities against him.

While the 83-year-old Singh single-handedly led the campaign, BJP left nothing to chance. Modi addressed over half a dozen election rallies and all top leaders of the party, including BJP president Amit Shah, Union home minister Rajnath Singh, Finance Minister Arun Jaitely and Uttar Pradesh chief minister Yogi Adityanath, contributed.

However, ironically, BJP’s chief ministerial candidate Dhumal, lost the election. His name was announced to stop speculations about a rift in the state unit. His candidature may have helped some other party candidates to win, but he lost to his former confidante and right hand man Rajinder Singh Rana. He was denied party ticket last time and joined the Congress after winning as an Independent. BJP will now have to grapple with the question of choosing its chief minister.

Follow detailed coverage of the Himachal Pradesh Assembly Election 2017 here

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Updated Date: Dec 18, 2017 18:23:11 IST

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