New Leadership in Himachal Pradesh Ends Dominance of Two Clans

The anti-establishment tradition was kept alive in the Himachal Pradesh state legislative assembly elections in November 2017 as the Bharatiya Janata Party returned to power, banking upon the issues of crime, corruption, and development. Keeping in view the ground reality of the state, the BJP’s Central Election Committee was forced to declare Prem Kumar Dhumal as its chief ministerial candidate and to lead the election campaign. The elections ushered in a new era in the state’s politics by marking an end to the rule of two dominant clans that had led politics in Himachal Pradesh for about four decades. 

It can be argued whether Western liberal democracy overwhelms all, but elections in the post- Cold War era have certainly become more marginalised. However, the fear expressed by Kofi Annan in 2015 that elections have failed to resolve deep-seated political and social divisions, and hence, have created doubts about the value of democracy through the ballot box, could be perceived in the Indian scenario too. This lends credence to the discourse that the actual intent of the voter sometimes gets lost in the political imperatives of parliamentary democracy. 

The communication between the electors and the contestants in the electoral process is subject to several factors. While sociological factors like religion, caste, race, language, and region play a significant role, dynamic factors like the issues of development, governance and leadership also influence the process. Sometimes, instantaneous factors (at times, engineered) like scams, violence, and war play a decisive role in marginalising the opposition.

While sociological factors are important during elections for certain states in India, the dynamic factors play a more prominent role in others. Gujarat and Himachal Pradesh, the two states where elections took place recently, significantly differ in their social and economic landscape. The former has a formidable development lead and a population comprising of Other Backward Classes (OBC) (40%), Scheduled Tribe (ST) (14.75%), Patidar (14%), Dalits (8%) and Muslims (9%). While politics in Gujarat is greatly influenced by these societal divisions, elections in Himachal Pradesh are influenced by different issues. For instance, the Hindutva card played by the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) had its ramifications in Gujarat, but Himachal Pradesh was impervious to it. Himachal Pradesh is a small state (by area) with a high literacy rate. As per the 2011 census, 50.72% of its population belong to higher castes (32.72% Rajput and 18% Brahmin), 25.22% to Scheduled Castes (SCs) 5.71% to STs, 13.52% to OBCs, and 4.83% belong other communities (Census 2011).

The term caste alone is inadequate to represent the socially marginalised in a holistic manner because there are several groups within its fold. These caste micro-dynamics were also visible in the current elections in Himachal Pradesh. The old caste or community equations like Brahmin, Rajput, Girath, Chaudhary, Gaddi, Muslim and Sikh are confined to certain areas and do influence voting patterns at the micro level, but not so significantly at the provincial level. While the upper-caste Rajputs hold sway over the other social groups, Brahmins, SCs and OBCs also comprise a significant part of the state. Elections are mostly centred around issues of governance, development, and livelihood, leaving aside earlier concerns like old and new Himachal, the horticulturist–agriculturist divide, and caste patterns.

Politics in Himachal Pradesh broadly has been bipolar for about 40 years with the Congress and the BJP being the chief contenders. 

Keeping with the decades-long anti-establishment convention, Himachal voted the BJP into power with a thumping majority of 44 seats (48.50% votes as against 38.47% in 2012) out of 68 in the state assembly elections in November 2017 (Table 1A). Himachal Pradesh registered an all-time high voter turnout of 74.61%. In 2007 and 2012, the voter turnout was 71.61% and 73.51%, respectively. Women’s participation (51.34%) was higher than that of men (48.66%). Four third gender voters also cast their votes. The district of Sirmaur witnessed the highest voter turnout (81.05%). Hamirpur district registered the lowest turnout (70.19%). Constituency-wise information shows that Doon in Solan district registered the highest polling at 88.95%, while Shimla Urban recorded the lowest turnout of 63.76% (Table 1B)

Table 1A: Summary Results: Party Standings in Assembly Election 2017 and Gain/Loss Compared with Assembly Election 2012

Political Parties

2012

Seats won

2012

Votes secured

2017

Seats Won

(Gain/Loss)

2017

Votes secured

Vote Swing since 2012

Congress

36

14,47,319 (42.81%)

21 (-15)

15,77,450 (41.7%)

-1.11%

Bharatiya Janata Party

26

13,00,756 (38.47%)

44 (+18)

18,46,432

(48.50%)

+10.03%

Bahujan Samaj Party

39,575 (1.17%)

13,028 (0.5%)

-0.67%

Communist Party of India (Marxist)

38,244 (1.13%)

1 (+1)

55,558 (1.51%)

+0.38%

Others

6

5,55,134 (16.42%)

2 (-4)

2,29,179 (6.89% )+

(NOTA 25,770 [0.9%])

-9.53%

Total

68

100%

68

100%

 

Source: Election Commission of India; HP State Election Commission, Shimla

 

 

Table 1B: District-wise Voter Turnout in Himachal 2017

District

Voter Turnout (%)

Bilaspur

82.04%

Chamba

73.21%

Hamirpur

69.5%

Kangra

72.47%

Kinnaur

75.09%

Kullu

77.9%

Lahul & Spiti

73.4%

Mandi

75.21%

Shimla

72.68 %

Sirmaur

82%

Solan

77.44 %

Una

76.45%

Total

74.61%

Source: Election Commission of India; HP State Election Commission, Shimla

 

The Congress maintained its hold in East Himachal (upper area) where it won 10 out of a total of 19 seats in four districts—Shimla, Solan, Kinnaur, and Sirmaur. However, its overall share reduced from 36 seats in 2012 to 21. The Communist Party of India (Marxist) (CPI[M]) emerged as the third-largest party with 1.51% votes, an increase of 0.38% from 2012. Even the None of the Above (NOTA) option introduced by the Election Commission of India in 2014 was exercised by 25,777 voters (0.9%), which is a share more than that of the Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP), Communist Party India (CPI), or any other party in the fray. 

What is interesting is that while the swing in the vote bank of the Congress was almost negligible (1.11%), it still cost the Congress 15 seats. The reason is difficult to understand because the vote share of others (independents and 12 national and regional parties in the fray) declined from 16.42% in 2012 to 6.82% in 2017, a decline of 9.53%. This decline shifted the balance in favour of the BJP, which registered an 18-seat gain with a 10.03% increase in the number of votes it received. This further established that the voters had not altered their preference for the BJP since 2014, when all four Lok Sabha seats were won by the BJP.

The idea of a third party or front has failed, except in a few instances where there was paltry success. Some examples are the Himachal Log Raj Party that was founded in 1967 by Thakur Sen Negi and J B L Khachi, the Janata Dal led by Vijay Mankotia in 1990, the Himachal Vikas Congress led by Pandit Sukh Ram in 1997, and the Himachal Lokhit Party led by Maheshwar Singh in 2012. Some national parties like the BSP, Samajwadi Party (SP), CPI, CPI(M) and the All India Trinamool Congress have also tried their luck in the state elections in the past, but with no significant gains. The left has been a consistent player in state politics with nominal success. In 2017, the CPI(M) and CPI contested from 14 and 3 seats, respectively, and the vote share of the left increased by 2.09%.

Election Campaign

The voters seemed to wear a cloak of silence before the elections and did not reveal preferences. When the BJP trumpeted its election slogan Hisaab Mange Himachal (Himachal seeks accountability), the Congress’ slogan in reply was Jawab Dega Himachal (Himachal will respond). Although Prem Kumar Dhumal, who bears an overarching influence in the party, was declared the chief ministerial candidate quite late, the decision proved to be a trump card in the BJP’s convincing victory. The BJP’s central leadership’s experimentation in Himachal Pradesh (along the lines of Uttar Pradesh) and the promotion of J P Nadda as the pivotal man, proved short of success as his rallies initially did not draw in much of the crowd. On the other hand, Dhumal not only rejuvenated the election campaign, but also succeeded in uniting several party members who were peeved over certain ticket allocations. Further, the carpet bombing by party leaders like Narendra Modi, Smriti Irani, Amit Shah, Rajnath Singh, Arun Jaitley, Sushma Swaraj, and chief ministers like Yogi Adityanath, M L Khattar, and Shiv Raj Singh Chauhan in the last week, gave BJP a strong lead in the campaign. Compared to this, the Congress remained a divided house as the relations between Virbhadra Singh (head of the Congress government) and Thakur Sukhwinder Singh (the organisational head) remained strained. The rift was visible and ultimately resulted in the handing over of the election charge to Virbhadra Singh, who deliberately neglected certain areas influenced by the latter during the election campaign. This sent a negative message to the electorate. In another instance, the supporters of Congress aspirant G S Bali also sloganeered in front of Rahul Gandhi to declare him the next chief ministerial candidate and this made the intra-party feud public (Thakur 2017). The Congress’ election campaign was led by Virbhadra Singh with a team of party leaders like Rahul Gandhi, S S Surjewala, Amarinder Singh, Ghulam Nabi Azad, and Sushilkumar Shinde but fell short of being a match for the BJP’s campaign. 

Development as an Issue

On the development front, the Congress had a list of achievements in the areas of health and education, employment generation and welfare schemes. The Congress claimed to have recruited about 70,000 youth over five years by January 2017. It had also opened 38 government colleges and declared four private colleges (Sanskrit College Tungesh, Shimla, Sanskrit College, Sarain, Choal Shimla, Shivnagar College Kangra and Barhoh College, Kangra) as government colleges. In the education department, only 9,538 posts of various categories were filled. Even in colleges, 1,177 assistant professor posts for different subjects were created. Besides this, the filling up of various posts in different departments was highlighted in the Congress’ campaign. The government also reduced the duration for regularisation of contract employees from five to three years. Alongside, it announced a monthly unemployment allowance of Rs1,000 to youth who have passed the Intermediate exam and of Rs1,500 to disabled unemployed youth, from April 2017. Although the Congress government did not perform badly in employment generation, opening of new educational and health institutions and declaration of several development schemes kept it strong in contention. However, a good number of foundation stone ceremonies and declarations remained only in files and the poor state of primary services like roads, health, and water supply caused disaffection among the people. 

The BJP’s election campaign was also marked by a few pre-poll inaugurations and declarations. It relied on the issues of law and order, crime, corruption, and financial assistance to the state in opening three medical colleges at Chamba, Mandi, and Nahan. The laying of the foundation stone of the All India Institute of Medical Sciences in Bilaspur by Narendra Modi on 3 October 2017 was also an important feature in the campaign. The institute, with a capacity of 750 beds, will be built at a cost of approximately Rs 1,350 crore. Besides healthcare, the institute will also provide nursing training and medical education at the undergraduate and post-graduate level. The Prime Minister also unveiled a plaque to mark the launch of Digital Nerve Centres for primary healthcare and also laid the foundation stone for the Indian Institute of Information Technology in Una. He also inaugurated a steel processing unit of the Steel Authority of India Limited, in Kandrori, Kangra. Besides these pre-poll inaugurations, the BJP also targeted the Virbhadra Singh government for having failed to initiate development in the state. It charged the Congress with not preparing detailed project reports (DPRs) for about 61 national highways approved and notified to the state by the centre in September 2016. However, Congress ministers Sudhir Sharma and Mukesh Agnihotri charged the centre with not having extended Rs 240 crore for the preparation of DPRs for these projects. The issues of health, roads, communications, and water supply also remained live at the local level in the campaign. 

Goods and Services Tax and Demonetisation

While through its decisions of demonetisation and the introduction of the goods and services tax (GST), the BJP trumpeted its fight against black money and implementation of uniform taxation, the Congress highlighted the failure of the two measures and severely criticised the government for causing inconvenience to the public. Rahul Gandhi started the election campaign in the state by claiming that the Modi government’s economic policies were responsible for causing unemployment and increasing poverty. Uneasiness was visible in the electorate, especially among the business community, over the GST, but it could not outfox the other factors in favour of the BJP. 

Agriculture and Horticulture

With a rural population of 89.97%, agriculture and horticulture are the primary sources of livelihood in the state. The issue of subsidies for farmers and fruit growers was another question contested in the election. While farmers and horticulturists demand reasonable support price for their crops, successive governments have mostly avoided the matter for years. Apple growers, who play a significant role in about 16 constituencies in Kinnaur, Shimla, Solan, Mandi, and Chamba districts, have also been exasperated by the sluggishness of the government to implement the new support prices since 2014 and were thus antagonised. A hike in the import duty on apples was demanded so as to help domestic farmers. 

Vision and Commitments

In its future vision and commitments, revealed through party manifestos, the Congress presented a more captivating outline. It had a more employee-friendly programme as compared to that of the BJP. The 2017 manifesto of the Congress tried to cover up the failures of its previous term when it spoke of zero tolerance towards corruption (the prime charge leveled by the BJP) and advocated transparency through the use of information and technology. It also tried to lure state government employees with sops, like implementing the 4-9-14 pay scale,[1] a long-standing demand and an unfilled promise made during the 2012 elections. It also assured the regularisation of contractual employees in two years instead of the current period of three years and the regularisation of the polytechnic, para,[2] computer and other teachers.

The Congress also committed itself to resuming the pension benefits to the government employees recruited after 2003 and the commutation of part-time workers to daily wagers after three years.[3] Citizens in the 60–75 age group were promised social security pensions. The Congress also promised the enhancement of basic pension for retired state government employees by 5%, 10%, and 15% after the completion of 65, 70, and 75 years of age respectively. It also promised to increase the minimum wage from Rs 210 to Rs 350. In education, the Congress promised to distribute 50,000 laptops with 1 GB free data to 35,000 meritorious students up to matriculation, 12,000 students up to higher secondary, and 3,000 students up to the graduate level. Besides several scholarships, the Congress also promised to open a gym and a ground in every panchayat, and a mini stadium, library and sports academy in every district for the promotion of sports activities. The government promised to provide employment to about 1,50,000 youths in the next five years and expand the training courses offered under the newly established Himachal Pradesh Kaushal Vikas Nigam to help youth find jobs in the private sector. 

The BJP’s Vision Document spoke of ending the mafia raj, crime and corruption, which had become synonymous with the government in the state. It also took notice of the law and order situation and promised to ensure women’s safety by installing a 24-hour helpline in the chief minister's office for reporting all types of crimes. It promised to set up a task force of ex-servicemen to take on the drug mafia and crime. The Vision Document also promised safe drinking water to every house, emergency medical services in rural and remote areas, road connectivity to all villages, raising of compensation for land acquired by the government for developmental projects, social security pension, and free Chardham Yatra for senior citizens. The party also promised laptops and free WiFi, and job fairs for unemployed youth. Other promises included free education to individuals from below poverty line families up to graduation and the promotion of home stay tourism.

Crime and Corruption

Corruption and crime remained the key issues during the 2017 election. The graph of crime and violence has gone up in the state in the last few years. The public angst about the Gudiya rape and murder in Kotkhai and the murder of a forest guard in Karsog by the mafia along with the consequent failure of the police to round up the culprits, instantaneously discredited the incumbent government. The lackadaisical approach of the government in dealing with such incidents turned out to be a major issue that figured consistently in the political speeches of the BJP and the left, as well as in public debates. 

Intra-party Dynamics: Opportunism and Rebel Politics 

In Himachal Pradesh, both the Congress and the BJP have faced opposition from the dissidents deprived of tickets and who later contested as independents or worked against the official party candidates. Certain candidates with unscrupulous pasts were also given tickets by the BJP and this was questionable more so because the BJP had been unequivocally critical of them in the past. The Congress maintained its tradition of going for dynastic connections and wards of Virbhadra Singh, Kaul Singh, R N Sharma and B B L Butel were fielded without consideration for the public’s displeasure. The erstwhile royal families too had a sphere of influence in certain constituencies—Virbhadra Singh and his son Vikramaditya Singh in Rampur and Keonthal, Maheshwar Singh in Kullu, Asha Kumari in Dalhousie, Anirudh Singh in Koti, Vijay Jyoti Sen in Keonthal and a few others in the fray. However, Nalagarh and Chopal, erstwhile active families, have been distanced from politics. While Virbhadra Singh and Vikramaditya Singh have won from Arki and Shimla rural constituencies (outside the areas of their royal influence), Anirudh Singh and Asha Kumari won from the Kasumpati and Dalhousie constituencies, respectively. Maheshwar Singh was the sole loser among these from Kullu where Lag valley, his stronghold, gave a splintered mandate (Thakur 2017).

Political opportunism is not new to the state’s politics as party dissidents and rebels have crossed over several times over the years. This time Anil Sharma, Rural Development Minister in the Virbhadra Singh government and son of former union minister Pandit Sukh Ram (still an influential voice from Mandi district) left the Congress to join the BJP. Pawan Naiyyar, the secretary of the Himachal Pradesh Congress Committee who had lost twice from Chamba, after being denied a ticket, also switched sides to join the BJP just one month before the election. Similarly, Harish Janartha, after being denied a ticket by the Congress, contested independently from Shimla (Urban) and finished a close second to the winning candidate Suresh Bhardwaj of the BJP. In Lahaul Spiti, the Congress faced a challenge from Rajender Karpa, a rebel. In Shahpur and Rampur constituencies too, rebels Major Mankotia and Singhi Ram made things difficult for the Congress. Before this, Maheshwar Singh, a BJP dissident, had also merged his Himachal Lokhit Party with the BJP in 2016. The BJP also remained uneasy over the ticket allocation in several seats. Internal dissidence was discernible in Palampur, Banjar, Shimla Gramin, Chamba, Bhoranj, Arki and Mandi constituencies after tickets were allocated to new faces. However, many of the new candidates like Pawan Naiyyar from Chamba, Anil Sharma from Mandi, and Balbir Verma from Chopal won their seats. 

Anti-incumbency

Dissatisfaction with the performance of the incumbent government leads to a change in the public mandate. Anti-incumbency has always been a significant factor in Himachal Pradesh politics. This can be interpreted in different ways because governments have alternated between the Congress and the BJP for more than three decades, and on mostly the same grounds: corruption, crime, governance, development, unemployment, and employees’ demands. A change after regular intervals is suggestive of the constant failure of governments in translating the voters’ will into material gains and policymaking. 

This is partially due to a substantial force of state employees (around 2.6 lakh persons) who mediate between the government and the people and are divided along party lines. However, the failure of the government in settling several issues of employees like 4-9-14 incremental benefits, retention of pension scheme, regularisation of contract employees and para teachers, placed it in a tough spot in this election. Meanwhile, the contractual and para-employees who number around 30,000, seemed to be content with the accommodative policies of the government and the reduction of time for the regularisation of their services from five to three years. Since about a decade, the state employees have lost the strong leverage that they previously enjoyed, due to several splits and divides in their unions. 

Another important force in the state is that of ex-servicemen who number around 1,09,697 (about 1.6 % of the total population), a proportion larger than any other state in India. Ex-servicemen further influence about 6–8 lakh votes in the state and are reckoned as a considerable force. Major General Satbir Singh, chairman of the Indian Ex Servicemen Movement, appealed to voters to support the Congress since the BJP had denied the One Rank One Pay benefits to the services. However, the ex-servicemen largely sided with the BJP on account of promises of increase in job quota, setting up of Somnath Vahini (a task force of ex-servicemen to take on the drug mafia and crime), more benefits in recruitment, and the demand for a separate Himachal regiment in the army.

End of Clan Dominance

The idea of democracy excludes the role of informal structures like families, clans, tribes or such ethnic manifestations, yet the states today are not really exempt from this supposition. Himachal Pradesh is one such example worthy of consideration. While on the one hand, it has catapulted to the fore a new and young leadership with Jairam Thakur as the new chief minister with a humble and non-political background, on the other, it also marks the end of the dominance of the two clans of Virbhadra Singh and Prem Kumar Dhumal, who have ruled over the state for the past three decades. 

Virbhadra Singh introduced his wife Pratibha Singh into politics in the 1990s with her Lok Sabha wins from the Mandi seat in the 2004 and 2013 by-elections. He also introduced his son Vikramditya Singh to politics in 2013, when he was appointed as the president of Himachal Pradesh Youth Congress. Dhumal, who started his political career in 1983, was a member of the Lok Sabha in 1989, and he was the chief minister of the state twice, from 1997 to 2002 and from 2007 to 2012. His son, Anurag Thakur, is also a member of the Lok Sabha and the Board of Control for Cricket in India president. The politics of the state has been dominated by these two families forging the politics into two opposing camps. There has been no third force or family to be reckoned with seriously in the state (Thakur 2018).

Although Virbhadra Singh succeeded in saving his seat from Arki and his son’s seat from Shimla (Rural), this election dealt a serious blow to the family business of the clans with Pratibha Singh’s sister-in-law Jyoti Sen (of the BJP) being defeated in the Kasumpati constituency. The Congress’ victory in Hamirpur district (where it won three out of five seats) is not to the credit of Virbhadra Singh, but is reflective of the simmering discontent against the BJP lead campaigner Prem Kumar Dhumal and his family. The defeat of some close associates of Dhumal, like Ravinder Ravi from Dehra, Ghulab Singh Thakur from Joginder Nagar and Baldev Sharma from Barsar, further strengthens this view.

While Dhumal’s defeat debilitates the family’s prospects in the future, his son continues to be a member of Lok Sabha. Although Pandit Sukh Ram and his son Anil Sharma (from another prominent political family from Mandi) have succeeded in securing a ministry in the current BJP regime, the mercurial past of the family is likely to make things difficult for them in the future. 

In Conclusion

At last, Jai Ram Thakur, from Mandi district, joined the list of chief ministers of Himachal Pradesh. The 2017 election was marked by the levelling of corruption charges against Virbhadra Singh and his family, demands for tackling crime, for transparency in governance, and focus on employees’ issues, poor road conditions, agriculture, health, and water. On the organisational front, the visible divide in the Congress between Sukhvinder Singh Thakur and Virbhadra Singh, and an organisationally strong BJP with a better strategy and powerful election campaign gave the latter an edge. While people of the state have deprived the two dominant clans of power, a new team with a young leader who has a humble and non-political background, marks a new era in the politics of Himachal Pradesh. 

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