With the Assembly polls just six months away, the political temperature is rising in the hill state of Himachal Pradesh. The ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and the opposition Congress are busy organising political rallies and roadshows to galvanise support. Last month, the BJP organised a public rally for its national president Jagat Parkash Nadda, who hails from Himachal.
Interestingly, Himachal Pradesh has a tradition of changing governments every five years, at least in the last nearly four decades. The Congress and BJP have alternated ruling the state since 1985. The BJP might have trounced the Congress in many states, repeatedly in some in the last decade, but in Himachal, the Congress party is not a pushover. In the bypolls held in November 2021, the Congress surprised the BJP when it won three Assembly and one Lok Sabha seat, not letting the BJP win any seats in that round of bypolls.
The Congress might seem listless in many parts of the country, but it is still robust in Himachal. The Congress has tried to seize the initiative by changing its state unit president and constituted the campaign committee for the Assembly elections well in advance. The Congress has appointed its Mandi MP Pratibha Singh as the state Congress president. Pratibha Singh is the wife of the late Virbhadra Singh, a six-term chief minister who passed away in July 2021. The Congress is trying to cash in on Virbhadra Singh's legacy, a popular leader who had a great connect with the people of the state.
The Congress has also appointed Sukhwinder Singh Sukhu as a campaign committee member. Sukhu is a sitting MLA from Naduan in Himachal Pradesh. He is considered accessible and is popular among the youth. Sukhwinder Singh Sukhu has risen through the ranks and was the state National Students Union of India (NSUI) president, state Youth Congress president and state Congress president in the past.
By appointing Pratibha Singh and Sukhu to key posts, the Congress has tried to strike the regional balance as Pratibha Singh belongs to the upper area of Himachal and Sukhu belongs to lower Himachal. While infighting has plagued the Congress in Himachal in the past, it has so far shown a united face. "We are fighting against the BJP as a single unit, and there is no factionalism in the party. As for the party's chief minister, the party will decide at the appropriate time," Sukhu said while dismissing the BJP's charge that Congress lacks a chief ministerial face after the demise of Virbadhra Singh.
In his roadshows, Sukhu evokes Himachali pride. He argues that during the Covid-19 lockdowns, many Himachalis who worked outside the state had to wait and struggle to reach their homes, and when all this was happening, the state BJP leaders were indulging in corruption. Chief Minister Jai Ram Thakur must tell the people of the state why the then state BJP president Rajeev Bindal had to resign. Bindal allegedly had links with a person arrested in a corruption case relating to the procurement of PPE kits during the pandemic. The people of Himachal are innocent but unforgiving when it comes to leaders who betray their own people and are itching to teach BJP a lesson, Sukhu says.
If roadshows by both Pratibha Singh and Sukhwinder Singh Sukhu are any barometer, then the BJP has a battle on its hands in Himachal. It will be interesting to see that with rising inflation and lack of employment, the jinx of no party repeating government in Himachal will continue or break in the assembly elections later this year.
(Tanveer Thakur is a journalist who has covered Himachal Pradesh and Punjab extensively.)