By Vishal Gulati
Shimla, Jul 2 (IANS): The political weather in Himachal Pradesh, it seems, in the assembly election year is a little rough for the lotus to bloom -- at least for the time being.
As the silent rebels within the BJP continue to prick, the task also appears to be uphill for the main rival Congress, which is largely banking on a trend to sweep the polls as both the Congress and the BJP ruled the state alternatively from 1985.
Political observers say though the ruling BJP, which believes the forthcoming assembly polls is a semi-final ahead of the final of the 2024 parliamentary polls, has somehow managed an edge over its seemingly 'faction-ridden' rival by signalling about its chief ministerial candidate well ahead of the year-end assembly polls, the Congress is still a "divided house" in the absence of a mass leader like the late Virbhadra Singh, who had devoted over 50 years to the common man.
Sensing a threat from the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) after its emphatic win in neighbouring Punjab by crushing the traditional players that ruled the state for over seven decades, Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) chief J.P. Nadda, who has his roots in Himachal Pradesh, in April announced that the party will not replace Chief Minister Jai Ram Thakur and the assembly elections will be contested under his leadership.
His assertion came in the wake of a claim by AAP leader Manish Sisodia that Union minister Anurag Thakur will replace Jai Ram Thakur as Chief Minister to counter anti-incumbency.
The Congress, under the leadership of state party chief Pratibha Singh, wife of six-time Chief Minister Virbhadra Singh, is struggling to speak unitedly about the key issues to put the government in the dock relating to corruption, deteriorating law and order, rising debt, an education scam for selling more than 45,000 fake degrees and the constable recruitment question paper leak that was sold for Rs 6 lakh to Rs 8 lakh.
A strong anti-incumbency wave against the ruling BJP is evident from the loss of three Assembly and one parliamentary seat in the October 2021 by-polls.
Confident of repeating the government on the basis of performance, senior BJP minister Suresh Bhardwaj told IANS in an interview on Friday, "Though the BJP is always ready for elections, but that is not our priority."
"Our government works for the people's welfare. In Himachal, our government led by Chief Minister Jai Ram Thakur under the guidance of Prime Minister Narendra Modi has initiated several steps in the public interest.
"We have enhanced the ambit of social security pensions, Ayushman scheme by rolling out Himcare, free power within certain limits, low bus fare for the women, reduced fare for others, etc. There are so many other steps taken by our government. The BJP is strong with the people's blessings and ready for the 2022 assembly polls."
A confident four-time legislator, Bhardwaj said the party has just organised conventions of booth-level office-bearers in all four Lok Sabha segments. "This (assembly polls) is just like a semi-final, while the final is the 2024 Lok Sabha elections. We will win the semi-final in the state's interest and strengthen Modi ji for the final in the nation's interest."
As far as the Congress is concerned, Bhardwaj said there are a lot many things to say but that is not our concern.
"Still, I would like to point out one thing. The Congress is a divided house. Nearly half a dozen presidents, a dozen vice-presidents, more than 100 state office-bearers, this reflects lack of confidence and trust within the party.
"Secondly, every leader wants to dominate others. In this, they are issuing baseless statements. Recently, the Congress president termed the inhumane act with a schoolgirl of Kotkhai a minor incident. They do not know what they are doing, what they have been saying," he added.
Congress chief and Mandi MP Pratibha Singh last week stirred a controversy by describing the Kotkhai incident, known as the Gudiya case, when her party was at the helm in 2017 as ‘chhoti si vardaat' or minor incident. The BJP has been demanding an apology from her.
Political rivals say the main challenge for the government is the state's deteriorating fiscal health with overall liabilities at Rs 63,200 crore.
Also, they say, Thakur has not managed to establish his credentials in these years as a charismatic leader unlike his predecessor and two-time Chief Minister Prem Kumar Dhumal.
They charge Thakur with lacking "acumen" and the administrative skills to run the government, besides triggering the battle for one-upmanship with the deliberate sidelining of the camp headed by Dhumal and his Union minister son Anurag Thakur.
"By inducting two Independent MLAs -- Hoshiyar Singh and Prakash Rana -- just ahead of the polls, the Chief Minister has tried to kill two birds with one stone. First, he's trying to project that he is strengthening the party's vote bank. And second, he is trying to settle a political score with party arch rivals," a political rival, requesting anonymity, told IANS.
However, the decision to induct the first-time legislators has not gone down well with party workers and leaders owing allegiance to Dhumal, who still enjoys a mass base.
While newly inducted Hoshiyar Singh defeated the BJP's five-time legislator Ravinder Singh Ravi from Dehra, Rana defeated Union Information and Broadcasting Minister Anurag Thakur's father-in-law Gulab Singh Thakur from Jogindernagar.
Both Ravi and Gulab Singh Thakur are staunch loyalists of Dhumal.
The induction of the two Independent legislators into the BJP has given ammunition to the Congress to fire salvos at its rival.
"Attempts are being made to undermine Dhumal within the party," said Congress spokesman Naresh Chauhan.
The government is riddled with scams, ranging from the recruitment of police personnel to issuance of fake degrees at a price tag of Rs 4 lakh to Rs 10 lakh. The party is in full ‘battle gear' to take head-on the government in the forthcoming polls, said two-time Congress legislator Rajinder Rana, who has learnt political lessons for years from his once-mentor Dhumal, to whom he "taught" a lesson by defeating him in the 2017 assembly elections.
In an interview with IANS, Rana, who is one of the party's state working Presidents, said there is strong resentment among the youth and people of Himachal Pradesh, who feel proud to serve the nation by joining the army, against the Centre's Agnipath scheme for four-year contractual recruitment in the defence forces.
"In my Sujanpur constituency, every third house has a family member who is serving in the armed forces. In some houses, there are two-three family members serving the nation," Rana, who was once an election manager of Dhumal and knows his family well, added.