Editorial written for Economic & Political Weekly
Himachal Pradesh keeps faith with its voting history by ejecting the incumbent government
Since the creation of Himachal Pradesh in 1971, assembly elections in the state have usually followed the pattern of removal of incumbent governments from power. The recent elections conformed to the trend with the main opposition party, Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), winning a comfortable majority (41 out of 68 seats), defeating the incumbent Congress Party. The BJP's victory was significant as it followed up its success in Gujarat.
The BJP has gone on to claim that the national mood was turning in the party's favour and against the ruling coalition in the centre. The Congress, on the other hand, has dismissed the electoral loss as having no impact at the national level and has blamed the anti-incumbency factor for the loss. The party had hoped to break this trend by trying to announce welfare schemes in the later stages of the Virbhadra Singh-led government just before the election schedule was to be announced. That game plan came a cropper with the Election Commission announcing the poll schedule ahead of the expected date due to reasons of logistics.
The primary reason for anti-incumbency voting in the recent elections was the non-fulfilment of promises the Congress government had made after its victory in the 2002 assembly elections. The party had promised one job for every family in the state just after coming to power. Himachal Pradesh remains a state where agriculture, outside the apple orchards, is mostly subsistence based and the primary means of employment outside agriculture has traditionally been government provided. The problem of unemployment is chronic and the downsizing of government in this state too, a characteristic of neo-liberal reforms across India, has meant that newer jobs were left to be created primarily in the private sector through private investment. The Congress government had formulated that 70 per cent of all new jobs created in the private sector must be for Himachal residents, but this was not properly implemented on the ground. Unemployment therefore remained a burning issue that turned the voter mood against the Congress. Perennial issues such as corruption and patronage were other reasons for the grouse against the Congress as much as these were reasons that militated against the BJP in earlier elections.
The BJP victory in this election was qualitatively different from its earlier victories in the state. It was for the first time that the BJP won an overwhelming majority without help from parties such as the erstwhile Himachal Vikas Congress. This points to the effective management of the regional contradictions in Himachal Pradesh. The BJP, seen as strong in the Kangra region (termed New Himachal, as it merged into the old Himachal formed in 1966), was able to win substantially in the seats in the old Himachal region too. The BJP was also able to neutralise earlier perceptions and misgivings about the party on the issues of corruption and mismanagement as the electorate held the Congress government guilty of the same phenomena. The large margins of victory and the increase in vote percentage for the BJP are testimony to the disenchantment with the Congress government. Unlike Gujarat and other states, the politics of “hindutva” and communalism have mattered little in Himachal Pradesh, a state that has a very low concentration of religious minorities.
Another factor that was talked about in this election was the presence of the Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP), which contested most of the seats and threatened to make an impact by bringing disgruntled elements from the BJP and the Congress into its fold. The presence of a sizeable dalit population and the resounding success of the BSP in Uttar Pradesh raised hopes of the party making an impact in Himachal, but that was not to be. The BSP won only one seat, won by a Congress dissident and could only act as a spoiler in some constituencies.
Himachal Pradesh has always seen high levels of political participation, reflected in good voter turnouts. The fact that the politics of patronage, bad governance and the presence of corruption have ruled the roost in the state has forced the electorate to reject incumbent governments. The recently concluded election is validation of this pattern. Can the new Prem Kumar Dhumal-led BJP government buck the trend by providing an alternative to such politics?