Himachal polls: Changing his battleground, Virbhadra fights a battery of BJP star campaigners
Before the campaigning for the Himachal Pradesh assembly polls began, the fight was between the Congress and the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). It has now boiled down to the Congress Chief Minister Virbhadra Singh versus the BJP.
While the BJP has been carpet bombing the Himachali landscape with its top guns from the Centre including Prime Minister Narendra Modi, party president Amit Shah and a whole lot of central ministers, Virbhadra has emerged as the sole star campaigner for his party.
Whatever the results of the battle, he is giving the entire BJP poll machinery one hell of a fight devising strategies and countering the attacks coming the Congress way as he hops around the constituencies.
The message that has gone down the electorate is that Virbhadra proved to be a winner in the battle of nerves with the BJP top brass – particularly Amit Shah – that was eventually compelled to deviate from its strategy and declare former chief minister Prem Kumar Dhumal as its face.
Virbhadra changing his constituency to Arki in Solan district is also a major part of the discussion among the masses indulging in political gossip on buses, in tea stalls and other places.
While his supporters call it a masterstroke, his detractors are of the opinion that he was unsure of a victory in Theog seat that had been offered to him by Congress veteran Vidya Stokes and hence had to look for a safer haven.
His moving to Arki spells a new in the Congress politics in the state. This is the first time in the last 40 years that a Congress chief ministerial candidate is contesting outside the Shimla district. The last one to do so was the first chief minister of the state Yashwant Singh Parmar.
Arki seems to have embraced him with open arms. This non-descript constituency which is quite big in size, having more than 83,000 voters, was once a Congress citadel. It has seen BJP leader Govind Ram emerge victorious on the last two occasions, thanks to the prevailing infighting among the Congress.
“Otherwise how would you explain the official candidate polling 15,000 votes, the rebel polling 10,000 votes and the party losing the seat by a slender margin,” pointed out a Congress worker.
The party had fielded a young leader Sanjay Awasthi on this seat last time. The people are of the opinion that over the last five years he has done tremendous work on the ground and even the BJP workers acknowledge that Awasthi would have been very difficult to defeat if he had contested again on this seat.
“The way he galvanised the youth for the Congress is something that all politicians should learn from,” points out a Congress supporter Sushil Pathak, a priest who performs birth and death rites for his livelihood.
In fact, thinking that Awasthi would be the candidate from the Congress, the BJP had dropped Govind Ram and instead fielded a young face in Rattan Singh Pal who is contesting the polls for the first time.
A commission agent and an agriculturist, Pal is now proving to be a lightweight in front of Virbhadra although he has a group of committed supporters working very hard for him. Even union minister Jagat Prakash Nadda, Uttar Pradesh Chief Minister Yogi Adityanath and Hamirpur MP Anurag Thakur have turned up in this constituency to garner support for him.
The BJP's propaganda machinery is working full time trying to convince the voters that the Congress has done injustice to Awasthi. BJP workers are also telling the people that just like Virbhadra prepared the neighbouring constituency of Shimla (Rural) for his son Vikramaditya, he is now in the process of preparing Arki for his wife Pratibha Singh for future.
They are pointing out that Pratibha is the prime Congress campaigner here as Virbhadra is busy covering the entire state.
The Congress workers say that Virbhadra chose to come to Arki because the infighting was costing the party this seat despite a strong support base.
“His coming here has improved the party prospects in a big way. Today we are comfortable in at least four of the five constituencies falling in Solan district and his arrival has also made an impact in the neighbouring constituencies in Bilaspur district,” claims Congress worker Devender Thakur.
People who know Arki point to two interesting traits about the constituency. Battal village that falls here is known as 'Panditon ka gaon' (Village of Pandits) and there are numerous anecdotes about its residents that are shared.
This village is also referred to as 'Chhoti Kashi' in local parlance. Then it also has the town of Kunihar as its part. The locals never take its name and instead call it 'Chhoti Vilayat' because the common belief is that if someone utters its name in the morning, he has to go without meals the entire day.
Beliefs and anecdotes apart, this is a sleepy area where the issues that mainly concern the people are the development of a good road network with high-quality roads, need for vocational institutions, an end to the menace of monkeys, proper water supply, and other development-oriented concerns.
The Congress leaders say that all this would come easily once the party wins the elections. They point towards the largesse doled out by Virbhadra in the run-up to the polls and share the list of 70 projects announced for Arki.
These include opening three colleges, upgrading 18 government schools, opening a 100-bed hospital, earmarking funds for 20 new roads and a new drinking water scheme.
“All these projects were announced in the last six months as he was looking for a comfortable seat for himself. He always ignored Arki as he was not in favour of the Congress candidates who contested from this seat on the last two occasion and never addressed the concerns raised by them,” pointed out BJP worker Dharam Singh Chauhan.
Pal is also promising the people a whole lot of local development projects along with the implementation of central welfare schemes.
The Congress is approaching the people with a request to ensure Virbhadra's victory with an enormous margin. The BJP is trying to put up an impressive show. The locals are happy that their constituency has shot into prominence.
Confident that his electorate in the new constituency would not fail him, Virbhadra continues taking on the BJP onslaught at the state level.