The Bharatiya Janata Party’s reluctance to announce its Chief Ministerial nominee in Himachal Pradesh has allowed the Congress to bounce back into the fight. Polling for the state Assembly’s 68 seats would be held on 9 November. During the past three decades, the Congress and the BJP have got  alternate turns to be in power, and going by this norm, the saffron brigade should easily have romped home to victory.

However, by not projecting Prem Kumar Dhumal, the two-time Chief Minister, for the coveted position, the party’s central leadership seems to have sent mixed signals to the cadre. It is evident to the BJP’s supporters that both Amit Shah and Prime Minister Narendra Modi had not as yet made up their mind and therefore would, in all probability, announce the name of the incumbent only after the results are declared on 18 December.

It is equally clear that if Dhumal had to be made the Chief Minister, he would have been projected in the capacity ahead of the polls so as to cash in on his standing and popularity. Undoubtedly, the former CM is disgruntled because he has now been asked to contest from Sujanpur in place of Hamirpur, which has been his stronghold. (His son, Anurag Thakur, is the Lok Sabha MP from Hamirpur.)

The presence of another Himachal strongman and former CM, Shanta Kumar at a rally addressed by the Prime Minister also provided ample indications of the BJP’s intention. Shanta Kumar is a member of the Margdarshak Mandal, but as is well known, he and Dhumal do not see eye to eye on most matters. In caste interpretations, Kumar is a Brahmin and Dhumal a Rajput. The importance given to Shanta Kumar politically implies that the BJP is wooing the Brahmins in a mega way, and thus, could bring in J.P. Nadda, Union Health Minister and a Brahmin, as its nominee in the event of the party’s victory. Nadda hails from Bilaspur and was a minister in the Dhumal government. He is considered close to the RSS, and was at one time tipped to take over as the BJP president prior to the finalising of Amit Shah’s name. Ajay Jamwal, who has strong RSS links and is said to be close to the Prime Minister, could possibly be the dark horse in Himachal’s political arena.

However, a cause of concern for the BJP supporters in the state is that by not projecting anyone for the CM’s position, the party has made PM Modi the face of the campaign. This, apparently, has its own pros and cons, since the focus of the campaign against the incumbent Congress government headed by Virbhadra Singh has been slightly blurred. As a matter of fact, the attention has shifted to the Central government and its policies. In plain-speak, the BJP, which has been attacking the Congress for its failures during the past five years to administer the state effectively, finds itself defending the GST and demonetisation initiatives of its government at the Centre. In a prosperous and apple rich state, the GST and demonetisation issues have not gone down too well with the masses.

Another downside to the BJP’s decision to leave the Chief Ministership open is that Virbhadra Singh’s supporters are attempting to make it appear as a fight between Rajputs and Brahmins. Dhumal’s non projection is being portrayed as an act of betrayal of Rajputs by the BJP, even though caste equations are not as divisive in Himachal as they are in other states. The issue has become that of Rajput pride, and if these tactics click, the BJP could face partial trouble, since the Rajputs outnumber the Brahmins in the state.

The third impediment in the BJP’s campaign strategy has been that barring former Union minister Sukhram and his son, Anil Sharma, the party has been unable to execute defections from the Congress camp. Ever since Modi took over as the Prime Minister, and Amit Shah as the party president, the BJP has won most of its battles in states on the strength of Congress defectors. In Assam, it was Himanta Biswa Sharma, in Uttarakhand, it was Vijay Bahuguna, Harak Singh Rawat, Yashpal Arya and others, in Haryana, Chaudhury Birendra Singh and Rao Inderjit, in the Delhi civic polls, Arvinder Singh Lovely and so on and so forth. In other words, the Vibhishana strategy has not worked in the state, primarily since possible defectors changed their mind because of the outcome of the byelection in Gurdaspur in Punjab, which was construed as an indicator of changing times.

On the other hand, the Congress perhaps is in a worse condition than the BJP. It has put all its eggs in Virbhadra Singh’s basket and thus is hoping that he would be able to deliver the state once again to the grand old party. Undoubtedly, the six-time Chief Minister is the tallest leader in Himachal, but his priorities are essentially concentrated on settling the issue of his succession in favour of his son Vikramaditya Singh, who is contesting from his father’s old constituency, Shimla (Rural).

The Chief Minister’s entire core team is working in that constituency, while Virbhadra Singh has moved to Arki, where he is expected to win comfortably and also influence the voting patterns in Solan and Bilaspur areas of the state. Vikramaditya is facing a strong challenge from Pramod Sharma, a one-time protégé of his father, who is immensely popular and is an exceptionally gifted and effective speaker. Back in his native Rampur, the Congress nominee is on shaky ground since a Congress rebel, Singhi Ram, who was denied the ticket, is contesting as an Independent. The fear is that for the first time, Rampur could fly the saffron flag.

In Theog, which was represented by Vidya Stokes, veteran leader, the Congress does not even exist in the fight, the contest being bitterly fought by Rakesh Singha of the CPM and Rakesh Verma of the BJP. The Congress nominee, Deepak Rathore was hand-picked by party vice president Rahul Gandhi. In Chopal, there is a neck-and-neck fight between the Congress and the BJP, as well as in Jubbal Kothkhai, where former Chief Minister Ram Lal’s grandson, Rohit Thakur is pitted against Narendra Brackhta of the BJP. In Shimla (Urban), the BJP nominee, Suresh Bhardwaj is likely to benefit since Harish Janartha, former deputy mayor, who had lost the seat by less than 500 votes last time, is contesting as an Independent on being denied the Congress ticket, which was given to Harbhajan Singh, a close associate of senior leader Anand Sharma. The significance of these seats lies in the fact that they were once Congress strongholds.

According to Congress supporters, the humiliation of Pradesh Congress president, Sukhvinder Singh Sukhu has resulted in his moving away to Hamirpur to fight from there. As a consequence, the Congress is yet to make its war room fully operational in Shimla. On Saturday, computers were being installed in the party office. In sharp contrast, the BJP’s war room has been fully functional since the last ten days. Sukhu has also withdrawn himself from the campaign, thereby allowing the Chief Minister to spearhead the party’s effort. The logic is that with Virbhadra being the campaign spearhead, he should be also responsible for funding and financing the party nominees. It is no secret that the Congress nominees are short on cash and have been urging the high command to ask the Chief Minister to look after their financial requirements. The CM’s opponents are alleging that since defeat is staring the party in its face, the Virbhadra camp is saving money so it can be utilised when cases of corruption against him come up in various courts, post the election.

Strategically, the Congress has erred by replacing Ambika Soni as the general secretary in-charge with Sushil Kumar Shinde; this being done only two months ago. Shinde, an extremely accomplished politician from Maharashtra, is not familiar with either the turf or the players, and though he has been visiting the state regularly, he is not asserting himself as much as he should. He was to reach Shimla on Saturday, but on account of the flight being cancelled, would now be reaching there by Sunday to sort out emerging differences.

The Congress is facing major hurdles in the Mandi district, where senior minister Kaul Singh and his daughter are among the nominees. The shifting of Pandit Sukhram to the BJP has ensured that Mandi would largely go the lotus way. The Kangra region, which has 15 seats, is also witnessing a close battle. Virbhadra’s protégé Sudhir Sharma, contesting from Dharamshala, is trying to fend off the challenge from a party rebel backed by another senior leader, Chandresh Kumari, as well as the BJP’s Krishan Kapoor, who happens to be a Gaddi. G.S. Bali of the Congress is fighting with his back to the wall in Nagrota, while dissident party leader Vijay Singh Mankotia could probably win from Shahpur.

Overall, the Himachal confrontation is likely to be keenly contested, with the BJP having a clear edge on account of its more cohesive campaign and party infrastructure. Virbhadra is attempting to reverse the trend and in all likelihood could be contesting his final election. Incidentally, the incumbent Chief Minister is the senior most elected representative in the country, having won his first Lok Sabha election in 1962 and is the only politician who has worked with all the Prime Ministers India has had till date.

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