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Ex-friends more lethal than foes

Shimla, Feb. 20: The presence of rebels is hardly unusual in an Indian election. But in the coming Assembly polls in Himachal Pradesh, it has taken on an entirely new dimension, both for the ruling BJP and the Opposition Congress.

In the fray are not the two main parties but four sharply divided camps. Both the BJP and the Congress are having to contend with their rebels in a large number of the 65 constituencies that go to polls on February 26.

Barring, perhaps, Mandi district, where the Himachal Vikas Congress of former Union communications minister Sukh Ram is the third factor, Congress and BJP nominees are being drawn into triangular contests, mainly because of their rebels.

The top poll managers of both camps — Pramod Mahajan for the BJP and R.K. Dhawan for the Congress — have acknowledged that they are concerned about this. It is not surprising. With the size of the electorate modest — the average number of voters in each constituency being in the range of 50,000 — influential party leaders who turn rebels do count in the poll arena.

Public assertions notwithstanding, both parties privately reckon that margins would be narrow in most segments, particularly because of the perceived lack of a “wave” in favour or against any party.

Congress circles are, however, convinced that there is a “mood for change” among voters. That is why the party is all the more worried about the presence of rebels in as many as 21 constituencies. Privately, central leaders say about eight or 10 of them are serious candidates.

For the Congress, the rebel factor is rooted in the deep divide in the state unit. One faction is loyal to former chief minister Veerbhadra Singh and the other to HPCC chief Vidya Stokes. It is said that over the last two years, Veerbhadra and Vidya have systematically groomed their followers as prospective candidates in a large number of constituencies. The unsuccessful aspirants have now entered the poll fray as rebel or Independent candidates.

Apparently, many of the rebels enjoy the tacit support of their camp leaders. The most talked about “Independent” candidate is Mahesh Sharma, a former Indian Youth Congress spokesman. Considered a Veerbhadra man, Sharma has taken on Vidya in the Kumarsain constituency, which lies on the outskirts of the capital city.

Vidya’s followers allege that Sharma, who was expelled from the party a few months ago, is doing Veerbhadra’s bidding. The rumours are that Veerbhadra, sensing that the high command could instal Vidya as chief minister if the party wins the polls, is keen to stop her re-election to the Assembly. On her part, Vidya has left her Theog sitting seat in favour of a “safer” Kumarsain.

Strong Veerbhadra loyalists are in the race in at least another six seats and at least the same number of Vidya campers, too, have defied the party whip and challenged official nominees belonging to the rival camps.

One of the rebels has reportedly made things difficult for All India Mahila Congress president Chandresh Kumari in Dharamshala. Some of the rebels have even defied their leaders’ plea to opt out of the race. After its “carrot” ploy failed to impress the rebels, the central leadership expelled 23 of them earlier this week.

The rebel factor seems to be worrying the BJP more. The state unit is split between Union rural development minister and former chief minister Shanta Kumar and chief minister Prem Kumar Dhumal. The pre-poll truce worked out by the BJP central leadership between the two has not produced the desired results on the ground.

Like the two Congress camps, the BJP factions also promoted their respective camp followers within the party. The damaging outcome is there for everyone to see — in at least 15 seats, rebels are making things difficult for the party. Up to half-a-dozen BJP rebels, who have been ex-MLAs or even ministers, are serious contenders.

More worrying for the party is that the rebels are concentrated in seats considered BJP strongholds and in which the party even five years ago recorded narrow victories. These include Kumar’s home district of Kangra and Dhumal’s Hamirpur home turf.

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