Jai Ram Thakur needs to break Virbhadra-Dhumal era's ennui. Can he?
With Jai Ram Thakur taking over as the new chief minister, the hill state of Himachal Pradesh is set to witness a new era in politics. And this is because of the two-decade-long stint of Congress stalwart Virbhadra Singh and Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) leader Prem Kumar Dhumal coming to an end. One got relegated to the Opposition benches and the other bit the dust in the recent Assembly polls.
However, the journey on which Thakur embarks is not going to be an easy one as people have a lot of expectations and want Himachal to come out of the vendetta that has marked state politics over the last two decades. He has several challenges lined up already.
The foremost challenge before the new CM is to rein in the bureaucracy that has been ruling the roost in the state. The fact remains that the babus till now were vertically split between the Dhumal and Virbhadra camps.
In the cycle of vendetta that was started by the BJP, with the Congress also joining in, it was a norm to be transferred out to difficult terrains or being sidelined if the camp one belonged to was voted out of power. For those whose political lords were voted in the only motive was to secure plum postings through sycophancy and 'boot licking' while throwing their self-esteem to the winds.
These bureaucrats have been known to fight proxy battles for their political masters as well as themselves through some politically well-entrenched journalists who have been promised constitutional posts in various boards and commissions for rendering their services. The shamelessness of such journalists has been on display every five years and this time it was much more for those identified with the Dhumal camp because he had lost the polls and his becoming the next chief minister was impossible.
In fact, the entire calculations of bureaucrats, government doctors and engineers eying choicest postings along with some of the senior journalists looking for plum positions has gone awry with an unexpected face taking over.
These people are now displaying traits of chameleons changing their colour. It is for Thakur to keep them at a distance.
To make matters worse, Virbhadra had given prominence to the culture of recruiting retired bureaucrats at important positions. His government was known as that of 'retired and tired' bureaucrats. Thakur has clearly said – “There will be no place for retired and tired people in the new government.”
This is a welcome step.
“Those who were given post-retirement extensions just out of political considerations should show some grace and put in their papers. Why get booted out unceremoniously?” asked a political observer in Shimla.
“If Thakur manages to take bureaucrats to task, he would be setting the right precedent. Otherwise, the culture of top officers coming late to work and basking in the sun for the major part of the day would spell disaster in the coming days,” the observer added.
The second major challenge before the new government is to improve the financial health of the state. Himachal currently has a debt burden of more than Rs 45,000 crore and its per capita debt is reportedly more than Rs 55,000 crore.
The Centre has been giving Rs 8,000 crore annually as a revenue deficit grant to bail out the state but this is not a long-term solution. The government needs to think out of the box to enhance its financial resources.
The third and perhaps the most difficult task at hand for Thakur is to prevent the depletion of the environment. The question doing that rounds is that whether he will put an end to the rampant illegal construction in the state or not.
Till now it has been the Himachal Pradesh High Court that has been stepping in to prevent the politicians and the builder lobby from finishing off the green cover in the state.
But ultimately it is the government that needs to come out with an effective policy to check the plunder of the environment that has been going on with shameless impunity. Every institution that is supposed to check environment depletion has been turning a blind eye to the misdeeds of the builders and the politicians.
Thakur will also have to balance development with environment protection while trying to answer the question of this being 'whose development and at whose cost?'.
The next big task at hand for the Thakur-led government would be to tackle the problem of unemployment. With demonetisation and shoddy implementation of the Goods and Services Tax (GST) rendering several youngsters working outside the state jobless, the state is witnessing an unemployment crisis.
Himachal is a state where literacy levels are high at both the primary as well as higher education levels. With very little industrialisation confined to the foothills, providing gainful employment is very difficult. A large number of youth are enrolled with the defence and paramilitary forces while many are working outside the state. Still, there are lakhs who are unemployed or underemployed. The government will have to make policy interventions to promote self-employment.
Thakur has been talking of vast potential in the tourism sector but it remains to be seen how his government utilises this to create jobs for the youth in the state.
The fifth major challenge is to ensure law and order in the state that has the reputation of being the safest in the country. With a close-knit social fabric, even a single case, like that of Gudiya's rape and murder, can have a devastating impact.
“Law and order will be my top priority. We will ensure that Gudiya gets justice. The previous government had not shown the will to take the case to the logical conclusion,” Thakur said in his first media interaction in Shimla on Monday.
Posturing aside, the government needs to tackle the growing drug menace in the state. Over all these years charas has been smuggled out of the state right under the politicians' noses. Its easy availability at various tourist destinations is no secret.
With the rampant increase in abuse of pharmaceutical drugs among the youth, the state is fast moving in the direction of Punjab as far as drug menace is concerned. It is a well-known fact that drug abuse often leads to a spurt in crime and it is time the government nips the menace at the bud.
Apart from meeting these challenges, Thakur will also need to ensure that he does not become a remote controlled puppet of Prime Minister Narendra Modi and BJP's national president Amit Shah. The duo might be running a puppet regime in several other states but Himachal is a different ball game where the people are educated and politically aware. They do not want models of governance to be imposed on them and this independence has been fiercely demonstrated by various chief ministers like Yashwant Singh Parmar, Virbhadra Singh and Shanta Kumar. The people would want Thakur to be included in the list.
A large number of people are vocal about the 'relief' that has come their way with the Virbhadra-Dhumal era coming to an end.
“This was a very good election for the state as a lot of rot in the form of many heavyweights from both the parties got dumped. The people have demonstrated what they want,” said a vegetable vendor in Solan. It is expected that Thakur would take a cue.
Edited by Jhinuk Sen