The Telegraph
Since 1st March, 1999
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Graft cloud on BJP Himachal prospects

Solan, Feb. 13: The BJP is worried after two separate surveys conducted secretly at the behest of the party’s central leadership indicated bleak prospects for party candidates in the Himachal Pradesh polls.

The surveys, carried out in December, said that during the four-and-a-half years of BJP rule, “corruption has allegedly flourished in the state and could cost heavily the party candidates at the hustings on February 26”.

Agreeing with the survey results, a state party leader said: “We are facing numerous problems. Besides the anti-incumbency factor, the various anti-people policies of the Prem Kumar Dhumal government like imposition of service charges in government hospitals, increase in power tariff (later withdrawn) and growing unemployment are eating into the party’s support base.”

The BJP’s concern was evident when the party top brass converged on the tiny state and held rallies from Kullu to Parwanoo yesterday. While deputy Prime Minister L.K. Advani defended Dhumal against Punjab chief minister Amarinder Singh’s allegations of corruption, BJP president M. Venkaiah Naidu clearly told the people that if they wanted development, they had better vote BJP. Pramod Mahajan, Sushma Swaraj, Uma Bharti, Shanta Kumar, Madan Lal Khurana and V.K. Malhotra echoed them across the state.

The BJP has roped in Narendra Modi, the latest Hindutva icon, to address dozens of meetings to lift the sagging morale of the workers. “Modisaab is coming to narrate the Congress party’s misdeeds,” has been the chant of the supporters.

It has also persuaded Shanta Kumar, Himachal heavyweight and Union rural development minister, to take charge of the campaign committee in the hope that his clean image would swing the party’s fortunes. But Dhumal and Shanta Kumar don’t see to eye. “Kumar can work wonders if given a free hand by Dhumal. But this government is being run from New Delhi and not Shimla,” said Radhey Sharma, a BJP activist in Kasauli.

A high-level meeting, attended by Arun Jaitley, Dhumal, Shanta Kumar, state party in-charge O.P. Kohli, state BJP chief Jai Kishen Sharma and three RSS leaders, was held at Chandigarh on January 9 to chalk out a strategy in view of the Congress’ allegations of corruption. “Shantaji had strongly suggested that tainted sitting legislators should not be re-nominated,” a senior party leader said.

Later, at the first meeting of the campaign committee, Shanta Kumar mentioned names of some strong seat contenders in Kangra and Chamba districts and suggested that they be dropped. Dhumal refused.

The sources said the high command has assured Shanta Kumar that he would not be held responsible if the BJP lost. Amarinder Singh’s accusation that Dhumal had acquired property worth Rs 13 crore in Punjab after becoming chief minister is still reverberating n the hill state.

Apart from corruption, which has eaten into the vitals of the BJP, poor governance, nepotism and unemployment are among the other factors worrying the BJP central leadership.

The last Assembly election in 1998 had thrown up a fractured verdict with both the BJP and the Congress winning 31 seats each. The Himachal Vikas Party (HVP) led by Sukh Ram had then propped up a BJP government led by Dhumal.

This time, too, the HVP hopes to play the role of king-maker. Sukh Ram initially wanted a tie-up with secular forces like the Congress. But mounting opposition from a section of the Congress represented by Virbhadra Singh forced him to change tack: he is now open to an alliance with any party.

While there is no love lost between Dhumal and Shanta Kumar, the Congress, too, is sharply divided between factions led by state party chief Vidya Stokes and Virbhadra Singh.

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