Himachal Congress nervous as its mass leader revolts
BJP set to return to power in Himachal as anti-Congress wave sweeps the State
Shyam Khosla in Shimla
Outcome of the Shimla Municipal Corporation elections held last month are a fair indicator of the public mood in the state though civic elections are normally contested on local issues and personal popularity of the candidates.
There are several major factors that validate this observation. First, the Corporation covers both urban and rural areas in the state capital and is spread over one and a half assembly constituencies - Shimla and parts of Kasumpti. Secondly, the elections were held just six months before the assembly elections are due. Finally, the election was not contested on local issues, though civic issues too were mentioned during the campaign.
Almost the entire state ministry and senior leaders of the Congress, including a Union Minister, campaigned extensively. While the ruling party’s plank was State Government’s performance and corruption in the central government, Congress concentrated on attacking the ruling party for corruption and maladministration. Congress that was in power in the Corporation for the past two decades could win only 10 of 25 seats – a loss of more than half a dozen seats.
BJP, on the other hand, improved its position by winning 12 seats as compared to 8 in the dissolved house. CPM captured the offices of Mayor and Deputy Mayor but could win only three wards. Its success in capturing both the top positions is because of personal popularity of the two communist leaders who had recently led several local movements against corruption and land mafia is evident from the fact that its nominees in 22 wards lost.
It may not be well known outside Himachal that though CPM is not in a position to emerge as a third force, historically, it has a strong base in the Himachal University and had won the Shimla assembly seat way back in 1980s. Yet another factor that favoured the CPM is the divide between the voters of upper hills and lower hills. Both the CPM winners exploited the upper hills factor to the hilt. This badly hit BJP’s Mayoral candidate who doesn’t belong to that region and was defeated by a big margin. More importantly, many a Congressman, presumably on the direction of a dissident leader, quietly worked for the CPM candidates to relegate Congress to the third position in the Corporation. The dissident leader, thus, managed to send a strong message to the high command.
There is, however, no doubt that Himachal is no exception to the anti-Congress mood generated by ever rising prices and mega scams. Additionally, the State Congress is in an extremely poor health because of the widening gulf between Virbhadra Singh, Union Minister for Small and Medium Industries and former Chief Minister, and his detractors who now control the state unit. Both the factions are spending more energy and time in fighting factional wars than streamlining the party machinery that is in a mess.
It is widely known that 10, Janpath’s game plan is to use Singh’s organisational skills and popularity to fight assembly elections, and install dynasty loyalist and Union Commerce Minister, Anand Sharma, as Chief Minister in the event of Congress forming the next Government. On the ground, a majority of party cadres are dead-set against Sharma. He may be efficiently running his ministry but his contacts with the grass roots workers are minimal and he is not exactly a mass leader. Supporters of Singh have left no one in doubt that they would revolt if the high command ignored their leader’s claim to be projected as the Chief Ministerial candidate. Singh has, time and again, demonstrated his capacity to transfer votes to candidates of his choice to whichever party they may belong. He too is said to be adamant on a public pronouncement about his status in the state. The Congress is, thus, caught in a cleft stick. Those who know the ground realities say Congress is doomed if Singh is antagonised.
Although no party has won two successive terms in this hill state, Congress leaders are baffled by the absence of any anti-incumbency mood against the BJP Government. Public anger against the Congress Government at the Centre because of massive financial scandals and sky-rocketing prices have done in the Congress. Political observers in the state capital believe the BJP is all set to get a second term if nothing untoward happens between now and the polling day.