Shimla/New Delhi: The ruling BJP has taken an early lead in Himachal Pradesh, which is to decide if history persists or is rewritten in its election results. The Congress is close behind. Stakes are higher for the Congress as its chances in Gujarat are already dim.
Besides the issues of development, emotive appeals and campaign strategies, two factors will be at play as Himachal’s poll results come out today. One, whether the Himalayan state’s “rivaaj” (tradition) of changing the government every election continues. Two, whether the large number of rebels can dent the BJP’s chances at bucking that tradition.
Of the 55 lakh voters, over 75 per cent voted in the November 12 election for a 68-member assembly from among the 400-odd candidates. But the chief contest was between the ruling BJP and the Congress. Exit polls made predictions that kept either possibility open, or even a hung House — with Independents playing a key role.
In the 2017 assembly elections, the BJP won a comfortable majority of 44; the Congress got 21, with one seat going to CPI-M, and two to Independents. The BJP effected a generational change in leadership as its presumptive chief minister, Prem Kumar Dhumal, lost his seat, and Jairam Thakur got the chair.
Himachal has never re-elected the ruling party after 1985 — a trend that the BJP, powered by PM Narendra Modi’s aggressive campaign, hopes to end. The BJP slogan this time was “Raj nahin, riwaaj badlega”, meaning “the tradition will change, not the government”. The BJP has bucked a similar trend in another hill state, Uttarakhand, and it cited repeatedly in Himachal Pradesh, home state of the party’s national president JP Nadda
But the “rivaaj” is the reason why the Congress, which has run a lowkey campaign — it says that’s a thought-out strategy — sounded confident that it’ll get its turn. The stakes are particularly high for the Congress, which has been on a losing spree for over two years now, not registering a single state victory on its own. It currently has chief ministers only in Rajasthan and Chhattisgarh, both of which go to polls in 2023.
Rebel candidates — those contesting as Independents after being denied party ticket — have been a factor in the campaign, and may hold the key if there’s a hung House. The BJP had rebels on 21 seats. Both parties are in touch with the rebels and other Independents.
While BJP saw rebels across the state, the Congress has a tussle at the top. There’s no Virbhadra Singh, the ex-royal and six-time chief minister who was the party’s tallest leader in the state until his death last year. His wife Pratibha Singh, currently an MP, is the state Congress chief; and their son Vikramaditya Singh is a candidate. Sukhwinder Sukhu, the current Leader of Opposition, and Mukesh Agnihotri are other claimants.
The AAP made some noises here after winning the neighbouring state of Punjab early this year. But it later chose to concentrate on the Delhi civic poll, which it won yesterday, and the Gujarat assembly polls, results of which are to come along with Himachal’s today.
The promise of restarting the old pension scheme spurred the Congress campaign as a large chunk of the population is in government jobs. The BJP has made its “double engine” pitch, implying that having the same party in power at the Centre and in the state guarantees development on all fronts.
For the vote-count, more than 10,000 security personnel, returning officers, and other support staff have been deployed. It starts at 8 am in 68 counting halls across 59 locations.