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Himachal polls: Host of independents, silent voters keep Congress & BJP on their toes in Dharamshala

Rajeev Khanna | Updated on: 6 November 2017, 17:53 IST
(Arya Sharma/Catch News)

A dozen candidates indulging in high pitch campaign and the stoic silence of voters in Dharamshala, the second capital of Himachal Pradesh, has made the poll battle a complex contest.

Although the main contestants in the field are – urban development minister Sudhir Sharma of the Congress and his challenger from the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) Kishan Kapoor – the presence of ten other contestants is keeping the pundits confused. Nobody can predict a winner at this point of time.

Sharma is contesting from this seat for the second time. He has been a close confidante of Chief Minister Virbhadra Singh and is generally seen as a leader with a vision who is eager to introduce technology in almost every stream.

His supporters credit him with projects like bringing the Central University to Dharamshala and laying the foundation of an Information Technology (IT) Park in the constituency. Sharma's supporters say that despite Dharamshala having elected various Congress and BJP candidates in the last four decades, it is only during Sharma's tenure that actual development is visible across the constituency.

“According to Sharma's vision, only 5% has been achieved of what he plans for the constituency. It is during his tenure that Dharamshala made it to the list of the Smart Cities, leaving even the state capital of Shimla behind. Dharamshala was also declared as the second capital during the last year of his tenure. This would bring all the benefits that a state capital enjoys for the benefit of the people here,” claims Sharma's poll manager Jitender Sharma.

But the Congress candidate also carries the burden of anti-incumbency and at least three party rebels. On top of this, he is pitted against a four-time MLA Kishan Kapoor who has also twice been a cabinet minister in the BJP government.


...and on the other side...

Kapoor's biggest strength is his Gaddi community that is said to be the second largest voter segment in this constituency with around 69,000 voters. The Gaddis account for around 15,000 of the total voters.

“Our direct connect with the voters and the image of being a non-corrupt leader will fetch us the required support from the masses,” claims his brother Subhash Kapoor.

The BJP supporters dispute Congress claims on development saying that the IT Park project is yet to take off and so is the Central University. The setting up of the Central University has been delayed due to a tussle between the Congress and the BJP over the site. While the former has wanted it to be set up in Dharamshala, the latter was vying for Dehra as the location.

The BJP supporters also allege that the good road network was laid during the last BJP tenure in the state under former Chief Minister Prem Kumar Dhumal and what Sharma has achieved in his stint is mere concrete carpeting of unmetalled roads.

But Kapoor is not seen as a progressive leader by many of the locals. He also faces the drawback of being the last minute choice of the BJP leadership on the seat that had wanted to field either Ganesh Dutt or its present Palampur candidate Indu Goswamy.

It was only after former chief minister and Rajya Sabha member Shanta Kumar reportedly intervened on his behalf, and theatrics from Kapoor himself, that led to the change of heart of the BJP selectors.

In fact, when there were speculations of Kapoor not getting the ticket this time, a video of his had gone viral where his women supporters and he were seen weeping as his supporters raised slogans in his favour. He remains heavily dependent on his Gaddi community that he has been rallying over the last few months.

The rogue elements

What makes the contest very interesting is the presence of a lot of independents. Ravinder Rana, a candidate from the Gurkha community, that has a substantial presence in the constituency, is threatening to walk away with a sizeable number of votes.

Another interesting candidate is Vikas Chaudhary, a journalist who has been working abroad. He can be seen driving across the constituency on a tractor which is his poll symbol. His team comprises of people who have functioned as professional poll managers in other parts of the country and have also been associated with the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) in Delhi. He is talking of alternative politics and is working towards creating a third front of independents in Himachal.

“Our focus now will be the 2019 Lok Sabha polls. We do not want to become like other parties. We decided to contest when people including professors, doctors, and students came to us seeking an alternative to the prevailing forces whose leader are not bothered about the genuine issues of the people and are too arrogant. Accessibility to such leaders is very difficult for the masses,” Chaudhary told Catch.

He is talking about issues like traffic chaos that rules upper Dharamshala where, according to him, people have had to shift their homes for the simple reason that their children cannot reach school on time.

Chaudhary has pointed towards the water woes of certain villages and also the health problems being faced by the people in the villages in his agenda. He feels that there is ample space available for alternative politics as people are fed up with both the parties in the state.

For the common voters, the biggest issue is that of employment. A number of youths with whom this reporter interacted pointed that the successive governments have failed on this front.

“And on top of this, there is huge favouritism at work whenever there are vacancies to be filled. The educated youth is compelled to work in the industries in Baddi and Barotiwala where the wages are a pittance,” pointed out a college student.

Rajesh Kumar of Juhal village, who is campaigning for the BJP, further disclosed – “Most of us have to work in local hotels and all that we earn is a mere Rs 5,000 to Rs 6,000 a month. Nobody can make ends meet in such an amount.”

The youth want more tourist destinations to be developed in the vicinity of Dharamshala town so that they can get regular employment in the tourism sector.

The second capital matter

It was early this year that Virbhadra had come up with the political master-stroke of making Dharamshala the second capital of the state. The move was aimed at strengthening the Congress base in lower Himachal, particularly Kangra that has been a traditional BJP bastion with 15 Assembly constituencies.

The general perception is that Kangra holds the keys to the state Assembly polls.

Way back in 1994, Virbhadra, had started camping in Dharamsala over the course of the winter, in order to interact with the people of the region and oversee developmental work. He then went on to shift the state school education board to Dharamsala. He also overlooked the deputation of senior officials of the Public Works Department along with irrigation and the public health department.

Funds were provided for making the hospital in Tanda a super-specialty facility. An IIT was opened in Una district, while medical colleges were announced for Chamba and Hamirpur. Similarly, the Rajiv Gandhi Engineering College and pharmacy colleges were opened in Nagrota Bagwan.

In 2005, Virbhadra decided to hold the winter sessions of the state Assembly in Dharamsala. A Vidhan Sabha Bhawan was built at Tapovan with Virbhadra himself laying the foundation stone in 2006.

It was a move even the BJP could not oppose. Although the Congress lost the Assembly polls in 2007, the BJP government led by Prem Kumar Dhumal let the practice continue.

This year again, Virbhadra caught his political rivals off guard by declaring the place as the second capital and the BJP could only cry foul. It remains to be seen how much the Congress gains electorally from this move.

Interestingly, none of the big shots from any of the party has held a rally here till now. Virbhadra had turned up on the day of the filing of Sharma's nomination. The battery of BJP's national leaders have been addressing rallies in the adjoining constituencies leaving Kapoor to fight his own battle.

The contest in the second capital of the state is one to watch out for as it has the potential to end in a nail-biting finish.

Edited by Jhinuk Sen

First published: 6 November 2017, 17:53 IST