Himachal: BJP set for a long innings

The BJP's conquest of Himachal Pradesh offers certain striking takeaways, both for the dethroned Congress and the triumphant BJP, beyond being a saffron surge in yet another state.

The BJP's tally of 44 seats in the state assembly of 68 is its best-ever performance in the state. The party notched close to 50% of the vote share in a state that has a sizable Congress footprint, with its six-term chief minister Virbhadra Singh at the helm of affairs when defeat struck.

Interestingly, the BJP's feat is the outcome of a poll strategy in which a conscious attempt was made in an assembly election not to project or rely on any state leader. Congress did just the opposite, and bit dust. Of course, it had limited choice, for Virbhadra Singh was both an asset and liability for the party.

BJP strategy

The BJP's strategy too could have cut both ways. But the party managed to infuse an antidote of sorts by relying heavily on Prime Minister Narendra Modi's campaign. State BJP leaders like Prem Kumar Dhumal and Shanta Kumar were allowed limited legroom. The poll in Himachal was fought heavily on Modi's fame. The party lured the electorate with the idea of 'BJP in the state, Modi at the Centre'. This 'combo' clicked with the masses as HP has not experienced the benefits of such a model earlier. When Modi became PM in 2014, HP was a Congress-ruled state under Virbhadra Singh.

The BJP's two-time chief minister Dhumal, who was reluctantly named CM candidate by his party, may be staring at a doleful political predicament. He lost his own seat to his former protégé, forcing him out of the race to be CM for a third term. Veteran BJP leader Shanta Kumar, arguably one of the more credible faces of the BJP in the state, too showed signs of wanting to be revived, but that did not find favour with the party's central leadership. His pleas to be named chief minister candidate, sources said, fell on deaf ears.

But in the end, in a bipolar contest, what mattered was a win and BJP national president Amit Shah's strategy gave the party a resounding one at that. This election result is set to alter the complexion of the BJP in the hill state. Dhumal's dominance over state politics has perhaps ended. Union minister Jai Prakash Nadda, former minister Jai Ram Thakur and RSS leader Ajay Jamwal are considered front-runners in the race for the coveted post of chief minister.

The emergence of this new rung of leadership in the state BJP could prove valuable in the long run. After all, just as in Punjab, the BJP in the hill state, too, would want to break the jinx of parties being ousted every five years. Contrary to public perception, the GST mess and demonetisation had only a limited impact in this election.

The overwhelming numbers in favour of the BJP can be construed as a testimony to this.  Another crucial aspect of this election was the overwhelming mobilisation of the masses at the grassroots level, even in the back-of-beyond areas in the hill state by the RSS. Its cadre played a crucial role in the BJP's win.

Losing battle

For the Congress, it was a losing battle from the beginning. BJP spin doctors did the rest. The corruption taint that dogged Virbhadra Singh all along swung the advantage in favour of the BJP. The saffron party deftly amplified every decibel of the rhetoric against Singh and the Congress.  The 83-year-old says he does not want to hang up his boots ever, which is at the heart of the problem the party faces. The Congress high command has perpetually succumbed to his hardball tactics.

Unlike the Congress, the BJP leaders, even in the face of some serious issues affecting them, did not throw the kind of tantrums Congressmen did.  There has been widespread dissent and factionalism within the state Congress that cost the party dear.  Given the odds that were stacked against the Congress - deteriorating law and order, unemployment, etc., - the party needed a sound alternative narrative and new leaders to project. That could have offset some of the losses. But the Congress poll strategy was lacklustre and the political agenda it placed before the public mundane.

Nevertheless, the Himachal conquest was reduced to an uneven battle between the BJP and the one-man army led by Virbhadra Singh. Central Congress leaders, including Rahul Gandhi, showed up in Himachal only a day before the election campaign was to end. The distribution of Congress tickets was faulty and threw up rebels. Good governance was an apocryphal story.

During the next five years, while the BJP has set the ball rolling for a new generation of leaders and new public aspirations, the Congress, with just 21 MLAs, will have to reinvent itself. Virbhadra Singh, regardless of what he says, will be too old by then.  

 

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