Himachal Pradesh votes to choose between Virbhadra Singh and BJP
The voters of Himachal Pradesh turned out in large numbers to exercise their franchise and choose between the Congress’ Chief Minister Virbhadra Singh and the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) for the new state Assembly. The polling started on a normal mode in the cold morning but gradually picked up a brisk pace. By 2 pm, around 55 per cent polling had been recorded across the state and by 4pm it was 64.8 per cent. The final turnout was 74%.
There are 337 candidates in fray for the 68 Assembly seats in the offing across the twelve districts. There were 7525 polling stations set up for 50,25,941 eligible voters across the state. Around 17,000 police personnel along with 65 companies of the paramilitary forces were deployed to ensure peaceful free and fair polls.
Himachal is a state where levels of education and awareness are high and people have always turned up to cast their votes out of a sense of duty in the democratic set up of the country. Over the last three and a half decades, the state has never repeated a government and has chosen alternative parties the Congress and the BJP into power. It remains to be seen whether this trend continues or breaks this time.
An interesting part of Himachal elections has been that it has always been the local issues that have dominated over what is happening at the national level although the latter issues are also considered to some extent by the voters. The local issues over shadowing the national ones have often left the politicians and poll pundits stunned.
The state's oldest voter, centenarian Shyam Saran Negi reportedly cast his vote in Kalpa in Kinnaur. He has voted in all the polls held in India since Independence.
The Election Commission had made elaborate arrangements to ensure a high turnout. This included taking the help of ASHA workers to take care of young children while their mothers exercised their right to franchise.
For example in 1993 in the aftermath of the Babri Mosque demolition BJP government was expected in this state where the Hindu voters dominate. But it was the Congress that came into power.
Then in 1998 when Virbhadra had gambled with preponing the polls thinking that the Congress would easily romp home, the BJP had come into power with the help of the Himachal Vikas Congress (HVC) formed by former Union telecom minister Sukh Ram.
Again in 2003 when the BJP had registered a landslide victory in Gujarat in the Godhra aftermath, it was the Congress that formed the government here upsetting all the poll calculations.
This time around, the parties had to come down to the core issue of development in their campaigns. The silence of the voters in majority of the constituencies leaves everyone guessing till December 18 when the results would announced.
While the BJP had a head start to the campaign in the form of anti-incumbency being faced by the Virbhadra government things became complex when the 'Modi wave' was seen fizzling out and issues like demonetisation were raised by the Congress.
The party had to make midway correction and announce former chief minister Prem Kumar Dhumal as its chief ministerial candidate once again. This was done when the poll managers realised that the campaign was not going in the right direction and the centralisation of affairs was not paying.
It was realised that the experiment of Uttarakhand and Uttar Pradesh, where no face of the campaign was declared and votes were sought only in the name of Prime Minister Narendra Modi, would not work here. The complete centralisation in distribution of tickets at the level of party president Amit Shah while ignoring the suggestions of the local leaders also proved to be a goof up on certain key seats.
The BJP eventually centered its campaign around Virbhadra accusing him of being corrupt and leading a 'Jamanati Sarkar (a government out on bail). It also raised hyper-local issues like the Gudiya rape and murder case, murder of a forest guard Hoshiyar Singh allegedly by the timber mafia etc while making promises on local developmental issues. Instead of bringing out a manifesto, it chose to come out with a Vision Document. Just like it had done in Uttarakhand and Uttar Pradesh, it bombarded the landscape with national level leaders campaigning for the party candidates.
For the Congress it was Virbhadra who held fort as the star campaigner. He sought support of the masses for the developmental works carried out during his regime, particularly in the sphere of education and expansion of road network.
Over the years Himachal has witnessed development in different spheres and the aspirations of the people have also grown simultaneously. With good levels of education and awareness, development has been the centre stage of its political journey and many feel this to be the reason for Himachalis changing their government every five years.
These developmental issues are hyper local and may range from a demand for a hospital or a college to better transport facility for their agricultural produce and inheritance rights in the tribal areas for women.
During these polls, it was candidates from the CPM that is contesting around one third of the seats and some independents who were seen raising issues like availability of playgrounds for sports persons and auditoriums for cultural artists. The CPM has created a space for itself in the state at the local level. All it needs now is an organisational structure at the state level. It has support base among the students and the farmers. It is hoping to enter the new state Assembly to be formed.
The people are looking for a third alternative as they feel that both the Congress and the BJP have started taking them for granted. The Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) was expected to take a plunge here but its Punjab debacle saw it withdrawing for another day.
Himachal has once again voted for development on Thursday. Who will be the engine of development this time will be known only on December 18.