Debating India

VERDICT 2004

A jolt to the BJP

T.K. RAJALAKSHMI

Friday 4 June 2004, by RAJALAKSHMI*T.K.

IT was believed that the Congress and the BJP would win an equal number of seats in Himachal Pradesh. But the picture that emerged was quite different: the Congress wrested three seats from the BJP and the now-dissolved Himachal Vikas Congress (HVC), which held sway in 1999. The BJP suffered a major jolt when its national leader and former Union Rural Development Minister Shanta Kumar was trounced in Kangra by Chandra Kumar, Forest Minister in the Virbhadra Singh government. The lone BJP candidate who made it to the Lok Sabha won by a narrow margin of 1,625 votes in Hamirpur.

There is little doubt that the HVC, by merging itself with the Congress just before the elections, gave a big boost to the party. Former Union Telecommunications Minister Sukh Ram probably realised that in order to ensure his political survival, as also his son’s, it was prudent to merge the HVC - whose base had somewhat eroded in the 2003 Assembly elections - with the Congress. In 1999, the HVC had polled 12.37 per cent of the votes, the Congress 39.52 per cent and the BJP 46.27 per cent. In these elections, the Congress’ vote share shot up to 51.89 per cent, 12.37 per cent more than its previous tally, and the BJP secured 44.24 per cent.

Before the merger, the HVC’s lone Lok Sabha member Dhani Ram Shandil, who represented the reserved constituency of Shimla, had joined the Congress. This probably had signalled the end of the HVC. Shandil, whose popularity rating is high, naturally became a Congress nominee. Sukh Ram pledged support to the candidature of Pratibha Singh, wife of Chief Minister Virbhadra Singh, in Mandi, his stronghold. While Shandil and Pratibha Singh were deemed sure winners - Shimla being a traditional Congress seat and with Sukh Ram paving the way for Pratibha Singh’s victory - the only seats where there were some doubts were Kangra and Hamirpur.

While Kangra represented the fiefdom of Shanta Kumar, Hamirpur is considered the domain of former BJP Chief Minister P.K. Dhumal. The BJP renominated all its sitting MPs, including Suresh Chandel at Hamirpur and Maheshwar Singh at Mandi. In fact, of all the seats, it was Kangra that the BJP was more certain of winning. But the situation changed when the Congress fielded Chandra Kumar, who belongs to the Girth community, a dominant Other Backward Class (OBC) group in the district. It was also known that caste combinations would play a greater role in Kangra than anywhere else. With the upper-caste vote tilting towards the BJP, a good section of the Scheduled Castes and the OBCs appeared to have voted for the Congress. This was the first time that the Congress fielded an OBC candidate from Kangra. Moreover, Virbhadra Singh has given a good representation to Kangra in his Cabinet. Of the 16 Cabinet Ministers, eight belong to Kangra district.

While Dhani Ram Shandil won by a margin of more than a lakh votes over his nearest rival H.N. Kashyap of the BJP, Pratibha Singh won by 66,566 votes and Chander Kumar took a lead of 17,791 votes.

What is significant is that there was no apparent anti-incumbency sentiment against the one-year-old Congress government in the State. In fact, as employment is one of the main requirements in this hill State, the electorate, especially the youth, had looked with expectations at the jobs promised by the Central government. In the absence of a strong anti-incumbency wave, A.B. Vajpayee’s image and the schemes attributed to him certainly were not enough to win seats for the BJP. Besides, the vocal class of government employees, which constitutes a large segment of the employed, had not forgotten how their protests were crushed by the Dhumal-led BJP government.

See online : Frontline

P.S.

Pic 2 : Dhaniram Shandil, who won the Shimla Lok Sabha seat.

in Frontline, volume 21, Issue 11, May 22 - Jun 04, 2004.

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