The Telegraph
Since 1st March, 1999
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Mascot & has-been in poll handshake

New Delhi, Jan. 3: The BJP is banking on its state leaders closing ranks and the Congress infighting to see it through in the Himachal Pradesh Assembly elections.

“Our main strategy will be to get our ranks together,” a central functionary dealing with Himachal said.

It is well-known that chief minister Prem Kumar Dhumal and his predecessor Shanta Kumar — now the rural development minister at the Centre — have been engaged in a turf war although “ideally” they should have complemented each other. Dhumal and Kumar make a winning combination because they represent the two dominant communities in Himachal: Dhumal is a Thakur, a community that accounts for 24 per cent votes in the state, and Kumar, a Brahmin, represents 18 per cent votes.

Sources said just as Keshubhai Patel was “neutralised” in Gujarat with the argument that Narendra Modi was the “best possible choice” in the circumstances and that he should settle for a position at the Centre, Kumar was told that Dhumal was the BJP’s “mascot” given his “clean, uncontroversial image” and his record of “good governance” and he should “not be tampered with”.

The sources pointed out that Kumar was persuaded to attend Dhumal’s recent vikas yatra — “a sure sign that they are closing ranks”, they claimed.

The BJP will also have to decide whether to retain its present ally, the Himachal Vikas Congress, led by Sukh Ram. The party’s feedback was that “Sukh Ram was losing strength to fight independently” which is why the state BJP wanted to jettison him.

Listing the BJP’s “advantages”, sources said Dhumal had managed to erase the traditional upper-lower division in the state, which worked in the Congress’ favour.

“In the 1999 Lok Sabha elections, we led in 64 of the 68 Assembly segments,” they said. The Congress’ base was in the upper reaches — known as the “apple country” — while the BJP was stronger in the lower part, called the “mango region”. Both Kumar and Dhumal hail from the mango region — the former from Kangra and the chief minister from Hamirpur.

The other advantage was that Dhumal’s image as Himachal’s only “development face” after the state’s first chief minister, the Congress’ Y.S. Parmar. “It is one of the few states in which development works as an issue. Every home has an ex-serviceman. The most vocal sections are the ex-servicemen and government employees,” sources said.

The hydel projects commissioned during Dhumal’s tenure were touted as a “major source of employment generation” — besides making Himachal power-surplus — as were the roads, schools and primary health centres set up over the last five years.

Sources also spoke of the “bandwagon” effect in Himachal which, they said, “bred a sense of insecurity, prompting them to remain with whoever ruled the Centre”. Having a BJP government in Shimla and Delhi helped Dhumal pump in “huge money” for infrastructure development, they added.

Even as there is uncertainty as to whether these “advantages” will work, the BJP is banking on the Congress failing to bring about a rapprochement between Vidya Stokes and Veer Bhadra Singh, both of who are reportedly eyeing the chief minister’s chair.

The party’s assessment is that while Sonia Gandhi favours Stokes, Singh is the grassroots leader and has indicated that he will field rebels in seats where Stokes has her way.

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