Despite having only four Lok Sabha seats, the hill state of Himachal Pradesh is set to witness the ‘battle royale’ when it votes in the last phase of Lok Sabha elections on May 19. Himachal Pradesh has only four parliamentary constituencies – Shimla (reserved), Mandi, Kangra and Hamirpur and 68 Assembly constituencies. The state, which currently is a Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) bastion, has seen bipolar elections in its history, the two biggest parties being BJP and Congress.
Spread over 55,673 square kilometres, there are 12 districts in the state. According to the 2011 Census, there are 68,64,602 people living in the state, most of whom live in rural areas. The Himalayan state has a rural population of approximately 90%. It may come as a surprise to many that in Himachal Pradesh, over a quarter of population (25.2%) is Dalit, making it the state with second highest Dalit population in the country after Punjab (32%), according to Census 2011. The national survey has also recorded 56 scheduled castes in the state.
In many ways, this Lok Sabha election is exceptional for Himachal Pradesh. It’s for the first time that two of its titans — Congress’ six-time chief minister and five-time parliamentarian Virbhadra Singh and Bharatiya Janata Party’s two-time chief minister Prem Kumar Dhumal are out of the battlefield.
The BJP had been making inroads into the state since the very first general election in 1951. Till 1977, the Congress had been winning all the four seats here. It was in 1989 that the BJP first made its mark by winning three seats. But the voters have always seemed unpredictable. In 2014, they defeated the sitting chief minister’s wife Pratibha Singh from Mandi, and just three years later in the 2017 Assembly polls, they served defeat to the BJP’s stalwart Prem Kumar Dhumal at the hands of his own former aide Rajinder Rana.
In the last general elections, the state was influenced by the Narendra Modi “wave”, and voted for the saffron party. However, the party has not fulfilled all the promises made then, such as increasing the import duty on apples and setting up fruit processing units. Government employees are also upset with the BJP for not forming a committee for revision of pension despite the party’s promise in 2014.
Therefore, in this election where the BJP, being the ruling party at the Centre and in the state, is facing anti-incumbency, the Congress on the other hand, is plagued with severe infighting. Virbhadra Singh is sulking after not getting his way in the selection of candidates. Though he is actively campaigning for the party, many of his comments have put his party on the spot.
Anti-Incumbency and Simmering Infighting
The anti-incumbency sentiment may work in the favour of the Congress. The Mandi constituency, home to current Chief Minister Jai Ram Thakur, is likely to hold key to this election. Shimla constituency, too, holds importance, as Dalit candidates clash to beat incumbent BJP leader Virendra Kashyap.
Former Telecom Minister 91-year-old Sukh Ram rejoined the Congress along with his grandson Aashray Sharma, who is fighting the Lok Sabha election from Mandi parliamentary seat. Aashray is the son of Anil Sharma, an MLA from the Mandi Sadar Assembly constituency, who till recently served as a Cabinet minister in the Jai Ram Thakur government with the portfolios of Rural Development and Panchayati Raj. Anil resigned as a minister on April 12. The former telecom minister is determined to help Aashray wrest this seat from his BJP rival Ram Swaroop Sharma who is a close confidante of CM Thakur.
Despite the differences with Sukh Ram, Virbhadra Singh has shown his support to Ashray Sharma. The two hugged and made up but the bitterness often surfaces. During a rally for Sharma, Singh openly criticised Sukh Ram for the political opportunism of his shifting loyalties between the Congress and the BJP.
Also read: Rising Atrocities on Dalits in BJP-Ruled Himachal Pradesh
On the other hand, in every rally Sukh Ram addresses, he makes it a point to publicly ask for forgiveness from Virbhadra for any past misdemeanours committed by him.
Sources also suggest that infighting is simmering in the BJP too, especially in the Hamirpur constituency, where Anurag Thakur, who is seeking re-election from BJP for the fourth time, has to face not only his Congress opponent, but also his own disgruntled colleague and Health Minister J P Nadda. Many people believe that former chief minister Prem Kumar Dhumal’s loss in 2017 from the 'safe’ Sujanpur seat was allegedly sabotaged by those in the JP Nadda camp.
His father’s loss sent out a strong warning signal to Anurag Thakur and the people from his constituency believe that it was only during the last two years that Anurag had begun devoting time to his constituency.
But, what are the real issues?
As one approaches the capital city during the run-up to the phase seven of general elections in the state, party flyers and banners can be seen adorning every road in the city. Some heralding the lotus and others the hand, it’s not easy to spot signs of the real issues the people of the state are facing.
NewsClick spoke to some residents of Shimla in order to grasp what issues the common people of the state are struggling with. “The main issues are unemployment, pension scheme, drug menace. At least in Shimla city, no one is raising these issues. Not only in Shimla, look at any constituency, so many leaders are coming for rallies – Amit Shah, Modi… Nobody says anything about these issues,” said a local woman working with the Himachal Pradesh government.
“I feel, after the Gudiya gangrape, government should have put in more efforts to ensure safety of the women in the state and should have worked towards punishing the culprits, but they haven’t. As a young woman, I feel that the city is becoming dangerous for women. Recently, there was a case of rape which was then retracted, but mere mention of these cases is worrisome. I also feel now this “chitta” (heroine) is spreading so rapidly among the youth that it has become quite scary. People are voicing their concerns, but the government is not taking anything seriously,” a 24-year-old Saumya and a second time voter told NewsClick.
NewsClick had earlier reported about the growing synthetic drug menace in Himachal Pradesh which highlighted the need for a government-backed social audit for the problem. Despite the CM’s cryptic statements around the growing ‘epidemic’, neither the BJP or the Congress has given a place to the issue in either their manifestos or even their rally addresses.
Interestingly, at a recent rally conducted by Amit Shah in Hamirpur, many voters were miffed over the BJP president’s remark “forget development, just vote for Modi and we will solve your problems”.
“This is almost an insult. How can a leader ask for votes by asking us to forget about development? What else do we want? Not only that, haati people in Giri-Paar region of Sirmour district had high hopes from Amit Shah, but he didn’t even mention them in his address. This has left them utterly disappointed,” said a senior government employee.
Haati is a community of people residing in the remotest area of Sirmour district. They have been demanding a special status owing to the deplorable social conditions of their region. It is believed to be one of the most underdeveloped and socially backward regions in the entire state.
Rakesh Singha, Communist Party of India (Marxist) MLA from Theog which falls in the Shimla Lok Sabha constituency, is critical of the way real issues of the public have been sidelined in the present election.
"Issues of employment, agrarian distress, non-repayment of loans are not being discussed. Our state suffers from national calamities, but no leader is highlighting these problems. We have seen very poor governance by the BJP MPs in the last five years, but they are hoping that the Modi magic wand will help tide them over another five years," said Singha.
Are the hills echoing the national narrative?
While there are occasional quips praising the PM for the Balakot airstrike, one can also hear people questioning the BJP’s narrative of nothing having been done in the 70 years before Modi’s Prime Ministership.
Out of the four constituencies here, Mandi has seen the most intensive campaigning including by PM Modi himself. The state machinery is supposedly over-active here because Chief Minister Jai Ram Thakur is a legislator from the Seraj Assembly seat that falls under the Mandi Lok Sabha constituency. This election is a litmus test for him. If the BJP loses this election, then his position as the chief minister may become untenable.
Mandi is also the most diverse and vast constituency in terms of terrain, culture and area. NewsClick will travel through some of the areas in the constituency in the coming days to understand the situation better.
Also read: ‘This Government Is Really Good at Misleading People’ - Rakesh Singha