Virbhadra Singh forced Sonia Gandhi to surrender to his demands
BJP lost Himachal despite the strong anti-Congress wave sweeping the country thanks to fierce in-fighting leading to split in the party and wrong selection of candidates under pressure from dissidents. The party virtually gifted the state to the Congress which too was hopelessly divided.
On paper, it was a convincing victory – 36 seats for Congress against 26 for the BJP in a house of 68. The ground reality is that it was a close fight but for the revolt in the ruling party. Four of the five independents who made it to the assembly, are BJP rebels. One seat went to former president of the state BJP Maheshwar Singh’s Himachal Lokhit Party (HJP).
Marginal parties, including BSP, CPI and CPM have been decimated. Most candidates belonging to these parties lost their deposits. Congress party got 43 per cent of the popular vote against 39 per cent for the BJP. HJP may have won only one seat but it cornered 8 per cent votes. Some of the votes polled by HJP may be from non-BJP sections, but it doesn’t negate the reality that the breakaway party badly damaged the BJP prospects in more than a dozen seats.
The poll result is a strong message for those who were at the helm of affairs for five long years. It is their responsibility to take all sections of the party along. Ignoring tall leaders and denying them their due is a short-sighted policy. All credit to the out-going Chief Minister for ensuring victory of most of his loyalists but he needs to appreciate that if others are not politically as strong as he is, sidelining them proved counter-productive.
Kangra district that sends 15 MLAs to the Assembly has long been a bastion of BJP national vice president Shanta Kumar. It proved to be his and BJP’s waterloo in 2012. The party had won 9 of the 15 constituencies in the district in 2007. This time round, it managed only 3. BJP Government was keen to divide the district into three keeping in view the strong public demand.
Creation of two new districts, it is argued, would have generated goodwill for the party in those areas. The move was stalled because of stiff opposition from Kumar who doubted the intentions of the Chief Minister. This emerged as a factor in this election. For years, dissident leaders had been publicly raising issues relating to perceived unethical conduct of certain Ministers. A large number of dissidents were fielded on Kumar’s insistence in a last ditch attempt to assuage his hurt sentiments. Kumar’s loyalists who had been publicly criticizing their own government for years found it hard to convince the voters that BJP deserved their votes on the development issues.
Candidates changed their tone but the issues they had raised couldn’t be wished away. Consequently, almost all dissidents contesting in Kangra district lost.
Interestingly, two of the rebels close to Dhumal won pushing official nominees to the third position. While both factions blame each other for the poor show, the Congress that has not much of support base in the district won 10 of 15 seats by default. Voters verdict in this district is a lesson for dissidents. Those who publicly demonise their own party go down the drain taking the party along.
BJP has a strong cadre and vote base in Himachal. Unlike in previous defeats in 1993 and 2003 when it could win only 8 and 17 seats respectively, this time round it won 26 seats – some with huge margins of 9,000 + for Dhumal and 13,000 + for Dr Rajiv Bindal. It could have won the second consecutive term if it were united in mind and spirit. Indulging in blame game will do the party no good.
The situation calls for an honest soul searching. Central leadership is part of the failure. High Command is the final arbiter of ticket distribution but have a larger and more important responsibility to keep a close watch on the functioning of its governments and party units. It can’t be absolved of the responsibility if it fails to take timely and hard decisions to curb dissidence and reconcile differences among party men.
The high command must acquire the moral authority to enforce discipline and motivate cadres by its non-partisan conduct. BJP has lost an election but has the capacity and public support to face challenges ahead. It must bring warring factions together to put up a strong fight in the next parliamentary elections due in about an year. It will not be too hard to bridge the gap of four per cent deficit in popular votes if malignant elements are identified and shown the door.
The Congress party was in a bad shape during the run up to the state elections.
The party high command had sidelined former Chief Minister Virbhadra Singh after he lost power in 2007 by a huge margin. Singh is the most popular leader of the party in Himachal and an experienced and strong administrator. He also has strong support in a chunk of voters in old Himachal. Yet, the dynasty doesn’t trust him and perceives him as a rebel and trouble maker. He was the only Congress Chief Minister who dared to disobey the party’ command to publicly accept the responsibility of party’s poor showing in his state in parliamentary elections of 1989.
He stood his ground saying Congress lost because of his policies at the national level and not because of him. The dynasty did its worst to destroy his base by encouraging dissidence. Sonia Gandhi was in no mood to project Singh as party’s face in the assembly elections and dismissed as fake threats by Singh to launch his own party if he was not projected as its chief ministerial candidate. However, she lost nerve when it learnt that Singh had decided to join NCP to contest assembly elections against the Congress that might push the Congress to the third position in Himachal.
Ahmad Patel rushed to Singh’s residence in New Delhi a little after mid-night and persuaded him to cancel the press conference scheduled for next morning in which he was to announce his decision to join NCP. He met the Congress President who promised to make him in charge of election campaign. Sonia was so desperate for a victory in Himachal – a small state with just four parliamentary seats – to showcase that all was not lost for the party that she was forced to accept a rebel to be Congress Chief Minister.