On Tuesday, Narendra Modi visited Himachal Pradesh for the first time since becoming Prime Minister in 2014. And his visit brought with it a message to BJP workers - to brace themselves for the next Assembly polls that are a little more than a year away.
Modi's rally in the city of Mandi was named the 'Parivartan Rally' by the BJP, calling on the public to replace the current Congress regime in the state. But it won't be easy for the BJP to bring about this 'parivartan', for two big reasons - its own divided house, and a defiant Chief Minister Virbhadra Singh.
Virbhadra gave enough signals during Modi's visit to Mandi to convey that he was ready to take on the BJP challenge head on. He welcomed Modi to Mandi, accompanied him to the function where three power projects were dedicated to the state, and then moved on, as Modi went to address the BJP rally. But Virbhadra stayed put in Mandi itself through this time, and did not forget to present a memorandum of demands from the hill state to Modi on his arrival.
The PM's speech
For Modi, it proved to be an occasion to indulge in some chest-thumping on the recent surgical strikes by the Indian Army across the Line of Control (LoC).
The BJP chose the venue for the rally very carefully, given the fact that the lower Himachal districts of Mandi, Bilaspur, Hamirpur and Kangra send a large number of men to the Indian armed forces.
It provided the perfect platform for Modi to target the families of servicemen. The BJP cadres had worked overtime to bring people from all over the state to make the rally a success.
Modi went on to attack Virbhadra for the corruption charges faced by him, and also alleged that the state had failed make use of liberal financial assistance extended by the Centre.
"While the two BJP Chief Ministers - Shanta Kumar and PK Dhumal - will go down in history for providing water to every home and strengthening the road network, I don't need to say what Virbhadra will be known for. It is owing to the failure of successive Central governments, especially those led by the Congress, that I have been forced to create a special archeology cell in the Prime Minister's Office to dig out the buried files of announced projects, so that they can be initiated," Modi said.
He touched upon the local issues of expanding the rail network, tapping power and tourism potentials, while holding the Congress regimes at both the state and Central levels accountable for their failure to execute the plans.
He tried to strike an emotional chord with the serving and retired military personnel, who have been the core support base of the BJP, calling Himachal a 'Veer Bhoomi' and making claims of having addressed the issue of One Rank One Pension.
He played up the road projects being executed in the state, and also pointed out that the Centre was providing Rs 72,000 crore to the state under the 15th Finance Commission, up from Rs 21,000 crore under the 13th Finance Commission during the UPA regime. The BJP has already started selling Modi's development model to the people of the state.
A political observer from Shimla said Modi's speech showed that he had a keen interest in the state of Himachal Pradesh.
"Modi has been in-charge of the state for a long time. He has also worked in the Kangra area as an RSS pracharak. He knows the place well, and this was evident in his speech. What was interesting was that he stuck to the local issues in his entire speech, which showed that he still keeps a watchful eye on Himachal," the observer said.
The state BJP brass was present in full strength at the venue, since it was sounding the bugle for the Assembly polls next year. These included former CMs Shanta Kumar and Prem Kumar Dhumal, Union Health Minister JP Nadda, and MPs Ram Swaroop, Virender Kashyap and Anurag Thakur.
The key question in the minds of the party cadres is: who will be the face of the party for the polls? This is the root cause of the infighting in the party. Observers say Shanta Kumar is seen as someone who has gone into oblivion, while Dhumal is not in the good books of Modi. Dhumal's son Anurag Thakur, more famous for being the Board of Control for Cricket in India (BCCI) president, stands in the firing line because of the the problems the BCCI is in before the Supreme Court.
Nadda is widely being seen as the frontrunner for now.
Ahead of the rally, a significant development was reported - that Nadda and Shanta Kumar had joined forces. This could realign the party in the state.
For BJP, the target is to regain its stranglehold over lower Himachal, particularly the Kangra district that had largely slipped towards the Congress in the last Assembly polls.
Cong ready to fight, presents demands
The Congress, meanwhile, plans to fight tooth and nail to prevent the BJP from executing its plan of a 'Congress-mukt Bharat' by doing away with the Congress governments in the smaller states. Virbhadra, for now, is the tallest leader in the party, and has already expressed his desire to lead the party in the poll battle.
Virbhadra is known for being defiant even in the face of the all-powerful Congress high command, and the same defiance was on display during Modi's visit, when he went right ahead to welcome him with a memorandum from the state.
The Congress government has demanded that the Centre pay a compensation grant of at least Rs 1,000 crore per annum to the state for its immensely valuable environmental and ecological services, rendered through the ban on green felling, and preserving the forests.
It has sought the removal of delays in clearing hydroelectricity projects through speedy environment clearances.
Virbhadra has also raised the issue of giving increased powers to hill states to divert forest land for development purposes from one hectare to 10 hectares. A demand has been made for resuming commercial flights to Shimla airport.
The state also wants to be a permanent member of the Bhakhra Beas Management Board, along with Punjab and Haryana, since the projects fall under the territorial jurisdiction of the state.
Another major demand aired is to include cannabis removal under MGNREGA, along with tea plantation rejuvenation.
The state government also used Modi's visit to hit out at the Centre's decision to do away with the Planning Commission. A spokesperson pointed out that the state had suffered, as it had been deprived of funds that used to flow from the Planning Commission.
Himachal used to receive Normal Central Assistance (NCA), Special Central Assistance and Special Plan Assistance (SPA), amounting to Rs 3,000 crore per annum, which was stopped from 2015-16 onwards. The state has lost over Rs 6,500 crore on account of this in the last two years.
It was also pointed out that the discontinuation of Centrally-sponsored schemes has adversely impacted the fiscal space of the state.
Kuldeep Kumar, chairman of the State Finance Commission, and GR Musafir, deputy chairman of the State Planning Board, said people were disappointed by Modi's visit, as he failed to announce anything concrete for the state.
Taking on BJP leaders for claiming that the face of Himachal Pradesh would change after Modi's visit, they challenged the BJP to spell out what has been given to the state, and what difference Modi's visit has made.
Edited by Shreyas Sharma
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