| An election rally at Hamirpur in Himachal Pradesh. (PTI)
Kangra, Feb. 24: The lower Himachal region, which will decide the winner of the Himachal Pradesh Assembly elections on February 26, has witnessed high-voltage campaigning over two weeks by the ruling BJP, the Opposition Congress and Sukh Ram’s Himachal Vikas Congress.
The Congress will have to put up a vastly improved performance to get the 33 seats required to form the government. As campaigning ended this evening, AICC treasurer Motilal Vora and general secretaries Mohsina Kidwai and Mukul Wasnik — who have been entrusted by party president Sonia Gandhi with the task of getting more seats from the region — appeared restless, not sure what would be in store for the party when the results are out.
The reasons for the Congress leadership’s anxiety are all too well known within the party.
For one, in lower Himachal, consisting of Kangra, Hamirpur, Una and parts of Mandi, Chamba and Bilaspur districts, the Congress is perceived as a party that cares more for the upper region — consisting of Shimla, Sirmour and Solan districts and parts of Kullu and Bilaspur region.
Congress chief ministers have always come from upper Himachal — be it Veerbhadra Singh, Ram Lal or Y.S. Parmar. Another likely chief ministerial candidate, state Congress chief Vidya Stokes, is also from upper Himachal.
Besides, lower Himachal has a large OBC presence. “The state Congress has not projected a single OBC leader in the organisation after the late Nahan Parashar,” says Prakash Chaudhary, a Congress member from Kangra.
The party has not fielded any OBC candidate in Kangra district, which is home to the largest percentage of OBCs in the state and accounts for a fourth of the 65 seats in the Assembly. Some prominent leaders from the community have fielded a Bangalore-based jeweller with local roots, Prabhat Chaudhary, as a rebel Congress candidate in Nadaun constituency of Hamirpur district, not far from this town, to protest against the neglect of OBCs.
Prabhat has turned down requests from AICC leaders to withdraw in favour of the official party nominee. His jumping into the fray has shattered the party’s hopes in Nadaun, admitted a senior party leader who wished to remain anonymous.
In Dharamshala constituency, All India Mahila Congress chief Chandresh Kumari — the party nominee — is nervous about her prospects mainly because of the OBC factor.
The BJP, on the other hand, has been projecting itself in lower Himachal as the party of the region. Though, like the Congress, it has not thrown up an OBC leader, the two chief ministers it has provided — incumbent Prem Kumar Dhumal and Union rural development minister Shanta Kumar — hail from there.
The party has, however, co-opted OBCs in the ranks. To emphasise its OBC moorings, the BJP has fielded a high-profile member of the community in former senior IAS officer from Jharkhand B.K. Chauhan in Chamba constituency. The BJP leaders have subtly carried out a campaign focusing on its lower Himachal and OBC cards.
Results of previous elections bear out that there is an electoral dichotomy between upper and lower Himachal, particularly when there is no dominating issue to sway the voters.
In the last Assembly elections, the Congress polled close to 52 per cent of the votes in upper Himachal and notched up 15 of the 18 seats in contention. In nearly 45 lower Himachal constituencies, the party got just 16 seats, managing to poll just around 40 per cent of the votes.
The BJP, on the other hand, cornered 26 of its 29 seats from lower Himachal, polling more than 42 per cent of the votes. Its tally in upper Himachal was three seats and 30 per cent of the votes.
It is thus not surprising that the Congress president addressed as many as four of her five poll rallies in lower Himachal region. Besides, both Veerbhadra Singh and Vidya Stokes spent much of their time seeking to “transform” their and the party’s profile in lower Himachal.
With a jittery Congress, the BJP could have fancied repeating the 1998 results in the region. The problem, however, has been the bitter factional rivalry between chief minister P.K. Dhumal and party strongman Shanta Kumar.
Several Shanta Kumar loyalists had revolted against the denial of party tickets and their perceived marginalisation by Dhumal. Rebel BJP candidates under the banner of “Mittar Milan” are in the fray in many constituencies.
The Congress could have exploited the BJP infighting. But the Opposition party is also facing the wrath of rebels in many seats. Added to this is the worry about Sukh Ram.
Yet the Congress leadership hopes to bridge the gap vis-à-vis the BJP on the strength of a “distinctly perceivable pro-change sentiment” among the influential government servants, pensioners, defence personnel and ex-servicemen, who together have always been key to the poll outcome in the hill state.
At the moment, however, beyond saying that the situation is “evenly balanced” and the fight is close, neither the Congress nor the BJP is prepared to hazard anything in clear terms about the outcome in lower Himachal.