Politics is all about perception. And, the Congress does not find itself on the right side of the perception battle in Himachal Pradesh, which will be going to polls in November-December this year. On the other hand, the Arvind Kejriwal-led Aam Aadmi Party is able to get some traction, though it would be difficult to say how much of it would translate into votes for electoral victory.
Politics in Himachal Pradesh has broadly remained bipolar for about three decades with the Congress and the BJP forming government alternatively. For historical reasons Himachal has been divided into two areas; the hill districts called “old Himachal” and the plain districts which were merged from Punjab in 1966, called new Himachal. Both “hill” and “plain” districts have 34 constituencies each and have played a counterbalancing force in the politics of the state.
In the 2017 assembly polls, the BJP got 44 of the 68 assembly seats and the Congress could manage only 21. In the last elections, Congress won only 12 seats in the hills. Kangra, the largest district with 15 assembly segments decides which party would form the government in Himachal, favoured the BJP in the last elections with the party winning 11 seats. Loss in three by-polls in December 2021 reduced the BJP’s tally to 41 and increased the Congress to 24. However, the BJP in the past four years has strengthened the party structure across the state, whereas Congress has seen defections to the new incumbent AAP.
The indecisiveness of the grand old party has become clear as it has not been able to reconstitute the party structure in the state for more than a year and there appears to be no cohesion among the party leaders in the state. The new party office-bearers for the state are likely to be announced in a week or so. In absence of the party structure, the Congress has not been able to provide any direction to its workers in the last year leading to the Congress failing to highlight failures of the Bharatiya Janata Party-led state government.
Infighting is fierce between the factions led by former state Congress chief Sukhwinder Singh Sukku and Pratibha Singh, wife of the former chief minister and tallest Congress leader, Virbhadra Singh. Both the groups are eyeing the position of the state Congress president believing that the Pradesh Congress Committee chief would be the next chief minister face.
The BJP had lost all the four by-polls in the state in November last year including the Mandi Lok Sabha seat. And, the defeat of the BJP and victory of the Congress was more because of people’s anger against the state government rather than a cohesive campaign by the Congress. Moreover, the wrong selection of candidates by the BJP was also a factor for the loss, party insiders said. The BJP had decided not to give tickets to kin of those leaders who had died, resulting in the by-polls, and thereby, the party lost on the sympathy factor. Whereas, the Congress by fielding Pratibha Singh, wife of Virbhadhra Singh from Mandi Lok Sabha, was able to convert sympathy for the departed leader into votes.
Four months down the line, Congress appears to have lost momentum despite the performance of the BJP-led state government not having improved dramatically. Even though chief minister Jairam Thakur has tried to take some corrective steps, a massive protest by government employees demanding restoration of the old pension scheme (OPS) has put the government in the dock.
Also, the farmers are not happy with the government over the increase in costs of fertilizers and other chemicals in the past few months. The apple growers in Shimla, Kinnaur, Sirmaur and Mandi belt have been adversely impacted by the import of apples from Turkey and Iran through Afghanistan, which has crashed the market for apples stored by farmers in cold storages in the state. High inflation is another reason for worry for the BJP in the state.
Despite so many issues, Congress has not been able to push the state government on the back foot in the recently concluded assembly session. Even in the assembly, the infighting was clearly visible with the leader of opposition, Mukesh Agnihotri, AICC Secretary Asha Kumari and former state party chief Sukhwinder Singh Sukhu, speaking in different tones.
For Congress to do well in Himachal, it will have to learn from the mistakes committed in the Uttarakhand elections, where there was strong sentiment against the BJP. Propping Harish Rawat as the face, intensified the infighting within the party and a section of the party ensured his defeat from Lal Kaun. The same can happen in Himachal if the central Congress leadership fails to reign in the local satraps and foster a cohesive unit with a clear vision for the state. For that, the party needs to put its house in order now and not wait till elections are near. Otherwise, the repeat of Uttarakhand in Himachal would be a foregone conclusion.