Mandate 2017: Mapping Electoral Trends in Himachal Pradesh

Prashant Negi is Joint Director, Centre for Distance and Open Learning and Assistant Professor, Dr. K. R. Narayanan Centre for Dalit and Minorities Studies, Jamia Millia Islamia, New Delhi.

 

The 2017 Himachal Pradesh (HP) assembly elections, notified for November 9, 2017 across 68 constituencies (of which 48 are general, 17 reserved for Scheduled Castes and 03 for Scheduled Tribes) in 12 districts, it is expected are likely to usher a ‘new normal’ in the politics of the small hill state and are thus, being keenly watched.

Table 1, District-wise Constituencies with General and Reserved Seats in HP, 2017

District

T

G

SC

ST

Kangra

15

12

03

Mandi

10

07

03

Shimla

08

06

02

Chamba

05

03

01

01

Hamirpur

05

04

01

Una

05

04

01

Solan

05

03

02

Sirmour

05

03

02

Bilaspur

04

03

01

Kullu

04

03

01

Kinnaur

01

01

Lahoul and Spiti

01

01

Total

68

48

17

03

Note: T= Total, G= General, SC= Scheduled Caste, ST= Scheduled Tribe.

Source: Report on General Elections to the Vidhan Sabha – 2012 and Lok Sabha Bye-Election – 2013 from 2 Mandi PC of Himachal Pradesh, Election Commission of Himachal Pradesh, January 2014.

While social mobilization for political action has largely altered the character of politics in India; politics in HP is still characterized by bipolarity of the contest between the two dominant national parties – the Indian National Congress (INC) and the Bhartiya Janta Party (BJP).

Such consistency, however, exists only at surface level. Subterraneously, both the parties have been marred with factionalism in the recent times. The power struggle between Chief Minister (CM) Virbhadra Singh and Pradesh Congress Committee (PCC) chief Sukhvinder Singh Sukhu is only well known and has played out publicly on various occasions. To mediate worsening power equations within the HPINC, the central leadership had in between appointed Sushil Kumar Shinde as the general-secretary in-charge of party affairs in HP. Shinde’s declaration that elections in HP would be fought under a collective leadership without a CM face was immediately denounced by Virbhadra Singh, who on his own accord, firstly, pronounced himself the leader of the HPINCs campaign and then to further establish his indispensability iterated that he would neither contest nor lead the party in the assembly elections.

Virbhadra’s rigidity had the desired impact and his candidature, as the leader of the party, was ratified by none other than the party Vice President Rahul Gandhi. Further, providing a clear signal of his authority to the rank and file of the party and also to the electorate, he had Sukhu removed as the Chairman of the Campaign Committee and also forced the central leadership to abandon its ‘one-family-one-ticket’ policy by ensuring a ticket for his son, Vikramaditya [from the Shimla (Rural) constituency] and for the progeny of some of his loyalists.

Individually for Singh, the move may be politically beneficial, but for the INC, at a broader level, it presents a predicament of sorts. Ridden with factionalism and internal strife, the INC has multiple and localised power centres, each trying to appropriate surplus in a manner most suitable to them. By reposing faith, yet again in an octogenarian politician utilizing pressure tactics, the Congress high command has indicated that inner-party democracy, decision-making and its policies are negotiable and has completely ignored the rumblings of an internal revolt possibly in a hope that the results of the HP elections will herald its own revival (theoretically conceptualized as re-nationalization) across India.

Lately, the Congress’s performance in general and state level elections has been far from satisfactory and blemished by mismanagement and infighting. Given poor levels of political perception and social mobilization around various issues in the northern region, the INC continues to represent a formidable political force in HP, Haryana and Punjab. Otherwise, despite gaining 31 per cent vote share in the 2014 general elections, its decline elsewhere is nothing short of astounding.

Affirmation of a CM candidate only rhetorically establishes the so-called political sense of clear thinking and purpose. In part, it is symbolic of a party’s inability to curb regional influences concentrated in individual-centric politics. This, as the case may be, is a result of a rather protracted process and given that it was actively fostered for years by the INC cannot be undone abruptly. By being coerced into presenting a leadership face and altering established party principles, the party has, to an extent, exposed its own fallibility by assuming that it will somehow unite collectively and dissent will quell overnight. Conceptualized within the rubric of ‘leadership crisis’, the Congress, therefore, is certain to face imminent complications alongside increasing localized assertions in the future and must consider that dissent only spirals, remaining dormant on accommodation of interest(s), only to re-emerge on their denial.

Correspondingly, the method of reliance on ‘time-tested’ leadership by the Congress, if successful, will only strengthen generic perpetuity in political observation. Its failure, on the contrary, will facilitate the ease with which the first generation of leadership in the state will be replaced by the Congress high command.

Also, the perception that HP Congress suffers from a leadership deficit is not entirely true. What is probably true is the INCs overall inability to promote internal democratization and decentralization of leadership – with HP merely being a cog in the wheel. How else can accommodation of continuing dissent, power politics and shifting party principles against individual appeasement be explained?

Initially, till about the end of October 2017, the BJP too conformed to its recent practice of not naming a CM candidate, probably to avoid an open factional feud between the camps of its then CM probable’s – Prem Kumar Dhumal (former CM) and Jagat Prakash Nadda (present Union Health Minister). The declaration of Dhumal as the CM face for the BJP, however was through the Party President Amit Shah in the presence of Nadda during an election rally in the Thakur dominated (Dhumal himself is a Thakur) Rajgarh on the 31st of October, unlike the candidature of Virbhadra, who had declared himself as the CM face of HPINC.

It is clear in the manner in which the political drama has unfolded in HP that in comparison, decision-making in the BJP is centrally institutionalized and is based on a popular-governing structure. The BJP also has an edge with a far superior organizational strength and cadre management than any of its counterparts. The issue, however is that such potency is synchronous to increased consolidation of leadership within the BJP. Such crystallization obviously renders the rapidity of organizational change and execution ineffective and increases the possibility of dissent, as was evident in the recent criticism by the former Finance Minister Yashwant Sinha.

With both parties plagued by internal power struggles, their organizational prowess will depend upon the manner in which leadership, both at the state and the central level, is able to exercise organizational control. The overall trend of fragmentation of the party system towards increased regionalization should not really be worrisome as in HP politics is predominantly characterized by a two-party system wherein both the parties are dominant.

If statistics for the past four assembly (from the 9th to the 12th) results are considered then the role of anti-incumbency as a primary factor determining election outcomes is unambiguously established. On other occasions, the parties have blamed infighting and improper articulation of development issues among the primary issues.

Also, the percentage share of votes in a state with merely 68 assembly seats has rarely fluctuated (with a difference usually ranging between 5-6%) to an extent so as to denote electoral volatility for either party (see Table 2). In other words, the contest between INC and the BJP has always been close in HP. Further, the trend towards regionalization of national parties and the disposition of the electorate to vote on issues of localized interest and leadership has led both the parties to field their strongest leaders and overload their manifestos with resident concerns – while the BJPs campaign is conceptualized under the banner of ‘Jawab Mange Himachal’ (Himachal Wants an Answer), the INC is contesting under the umbrella of ‘Mission 2017: Jawab Dega Himachal’ (Himachal Will Give an Answer).

Table 2, HP Election Results: Various Statistics, 1998-2012

9th State Assembly (1998-2003)

Party

Contested

Won

Percentage Votes

INC

68

31

43.51

BJP

68

31

39.02

HVC

62

05

9.63

IND

52

01

4.18

10th State Assembly (2003-2007)

INC

68

43

41

BJP

68

16

35.38

HVC

49

01

5.87

IND

110

06

12.60

LJNSP

27

01

01

LMHP

14

01

2.17

11th State Assembly (2007-2012)

INC

67

23

38.90

BJP

68

41

43.78

BSP

67

01

7.26

IND

60

03

7.97

12th State Assembly (2012-2017)

INC

68

37

42.81

BJP

68

25

38.47

HLP

36

01

2.40

IND

105

05

12.14

Source: Statistical Report on the General Election to the Legislative Assembly of Himachal Pradesh, Election Commission of India, 2003, 2007, 2012, and Election Commission of Himachal Pradesh, 2017.

In the 2014 general elections, the BJP contested in 427 constituencies and won in 282. The INC, similarly, contested on 462 seats, of which it won merely 44. Though the National Democratic Alliance (NDA) wrapped up 336 seats as an alliance, the United Progressive Alliance (UPA) folded at 60. With the BJP, at 282, emerging as the single largest party, all political discourses centred around coalitional and identity politics, regionalization etc. were paradoxically challenged. With the core leadership of the BJP being far stronger and its campaign being centrally managed, it is likely that the BJP in HP will benefit from centralization of democratic decision-making and pitching the rhetoric around localized issues. Prime Minister (PM) Modi’s poll pitch in Gujarat exhorting the electorate to vote BJP if they would like the pace of development in the state to continue certainly has implications for HP as well.

While the BJP would like its winning juggernaut to endure in HP, it is really Gujarat that the party desperately wants to win. With the Gujarat mandate having national implications, it is hardly surprising that the Election Commission of India notified the dates for the HP elections 13 days prior to those for Gujarat. Since the results of both the states will be declared on 20 December, the outcome of either state is unlikely to influence that of the other.

With Singh (contesting for the record seventh time) and Dhumal (attempting to return at the helm for the third time), the issue is merely not of power, but of its perpetuity and concentration within their families. In the eventuality of being voted back, either one, will try to entrench their dynastic ambitions by locating their political heirs to power positions. The question is who would succeed and whose political career will subsequently dependent upon emerging political exigencies.

Also, in comparison to plausible CM candidate(s), it is the candidate from the Congress who is allegedly tainted with allegations of criminal culpability, an issue already being exploited by the HP BJP within the banner of ‘Jawab Mange Himachal’. Singh, in this regard, has consistently maintained that he is the victim of ‘politically motivated vendetta’ and has initiated ‘Mission Repeat’ to demonstrate his accountability. Public perceptions, in this aspect, are widely divided with the treatment of various non-BJP politicians and political parties ranging from Lallu to Kejriwal validating public opinion on how public enforcement institutions are being differentially utilized by the BJP.

The BJP in HP, on the other hand, has certain advantages. Firstly, the party and its Hindutva philosophy is finding wide acceptance across India. Secondly, the charisma of PM Narendra Modi and the organizational abilities of its President, Amit Shah will indeed be exploited by the party. Thirdly, in comparison to the INC, decision-making is democratically centralized within the BJP, and finally, given that anti-incumbency has always been a deciding factor in the state elections, the BJP will definitely contest with an edge. In terms of leadership ability and deliverability followed by perceptions of development both the parties seem to have more or less similar experiences.

In an era of coalitional politics, the BJP has basically white-washed all opposition forcing a major realignment and rethink in the Indian political structure. The charisma of Prime Minister (PM) Modi, the ability of Modi-led government to substitute embedded leadership whereby, a generation of BJP leaders were rendered jobless, unification of public opinion on issues of nationalism (especially, after the JNU incident and the cross-border strikes by the Indian army) and Hindutva etc. have ensured that its saffron right-wing ideology finds widespread acceptance within the Indian society.

The biggest strategic advance made by the party, in my opinion, was enthused by an understanding that its ideology would always be questioned by the minorities and that it needed to diversify to accommodating the Indian middle class, which was precisely what it did.

The election juggernaut for the BJP, which is hopeful of returning to power in HP, was stimulated by the visit of PM Narendra Modi to Bilaspur on October 3. During his visit the PM laid the foundation of a 1,350 crore AIIMS project at Bilaspur, Indian Institute for Information Technology at Una and a steel processing plant at Khandrori, Kangra – all BJP concentrated districts. In his speech, he also focussed on corruption terming the Singh government as ‘jamanatisarkar’ (Government on bail) and raked in issues of cross-border strikes and One-Rank-One-Pension, fully aware of the sizable people HP has in the Indian armed forces.

The matter is, however far more complex given that the social is political and that HP does not exist in isolation. Politics is consequential to changing perceptions and the impacts of demonitization, Goods and Services Tax, overall economic slowdown characterized as ‘jobless growth’ and the manner in which majoritarian cultures are being forced upon people etc. are fast changing opinions of the electorate on the BJP government.

Additionally, and perhaps for the first time in HP, several socio-political and ideological issues are converging with the elections. The alleged murder of a forest guard by the timber mafia, the rape and murder of ‘Gudiya’, a sixteen-year-old school-going girl, whose mutilated body was discovered in Kotkhai on July 6, 2017 resulted in a huge public outcry. The matter is simply not of a heinous crime being committed in a so-called peaceful state, but of a breakdown in the moral consciousness. The issue of ‘Gudiya’ is emphatically linked with the notion of values, ethics and access to justice and will certainly have political implications.

Communalization of politics, which was hitherto unknown in HP, bared its tentacles in yet another case of alleged rape in Tissa area of Chamba district. Since the girl and the suspected perpetrator of rape belonged to two different religious identities, the incident flared up as a communal incident.

Two possible diagrammatically opposite scenarios therefore, are emerging in HP. In one there is a downturn in the political fortunes for the INC and the BJP fares as a majority party. The first eventuality is likely to engender a vertical split within the HPINC with multiple stakeholders claiming for control of the party and its leadership. Also, with the party lacking age dividend and leaders with mass appeal – questioning Singh’s six-decade long domination in HP politics will create issues of legitimacy.

In the second scenario, in the eventuality of INCs win, Virbhadra would be able to establish the political legacy of his family by ensuring the transfer of power to his son. That would certainly not bode well for Dhumal who will lose out on a similar possibility.

HP, on the whole, is witnessing what is sociologically termed as ‘social change’. Due to rampant urbanization and imitation of lifestyles unknown to the region fueled by substantial increase in disposable incomes, the state is undergoing changes, which are fundamental and structural in nature. Coupled with such changes are assertions in the form of political mobilizations, which will impinge on the 2017 elections.

Such transformations are having significant impacts on HPs primarily rural agrarian structures. Coupled with such variations are expanding aspirations and a burgeoning middle class. Any government being voted to power will have to accommodate such concerns.


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