Virbhadra's political masterstroke? Dharamsala now HP's second capital
Himachal Pradesh is set to go to the polls later this year. But the Virbhadra Singh-led Congress government has already made its first major move, declaring Dharamsala the second capital of the state.
Located at a distance of 250 km from the state capital of Shimla, this administrative centre of the Kangra district already plays host to the state's winter Assembly sessions. A secretariat complex has also come up.
Observers say the decision is a part of a larger political design by the Congress to consolidate the gains it had made in the last Assembly elections in the lower Himachal region, comprising the districts of Kangra, Una, Hamirpur and Bilaspur, along with parts of Mandi and Chamba districts.
Significance of the city
While making the announcement, CM Virbhadra pointed to the historical and modern-day significance of Dharamsala.
The city holds great significance for tourists from around the world, who come here for religious purposes, as well as nature and adventure tourism, all year round. Dharamsala is the seat of the Dalai Lama and the Tibetan government-in-exile.
The CM said the move would benefit the people of lower Himachal Pradesh, who would be able to get their work done without travelling a long distance to Shimla.
The upper-lower political divide
Traditionally, the Congress has been seen as strong in upper Himachal Pradesh, while lower Himachal has aided the BJP's rise as a significant political power.
While Congress CMs Yashwant Parmar, Thakur Ram Lal and Virbhadra have been from the upper Himachal districts of Sirmour and Shimla, BJP CMs Shanta Kumar and Prem Kumar Dhumal have been from Kangra and Hamirpur districts.
Kangra alone accounts for 15 of the Himachal Pradesh Assembly's 68 seats, while the neighbouring Una, Chamba, and Hamipur districts contribute five MLAs each.
However, in the 2007 polls, it was the Congress that shone in lower Himachal, which eventually led to the grand old party winning 36 seats and Virbhadra getting elected as Chief Minister again. The BJP was restricted to 26 seats, while independents won the other seats.
Virbhadra's long-term strategy
This move is part of Virbhadra's long-term strategy to turn the tide for his party in lower Himachal.
Back in 1994, it was Virbhadra who started camping in Dharamsala over the course of the winter, in order to interact with the people of the region and oversee developmental work. Since then, in each of his tenures, the senior leader has tried to decentralise his administration from Shimla.
First, he got the state school education board shifted to Dharamsala. Thereafter, senior officials of the Public Works Department, along with irrigation and the public health department, were also deputed to this area.
Funds were provided for making the hospital in Tanda a super-specialty facility. An IIT was opened in Una district, while medical colleges are coming up in Chamba and Hamirpur.
Similarly the Rajiv Gandhi Engineering College and pharmacy colleges have been opened in Nagrota Bagwan.
Then, in 2005, came the big one - Virbhadra took the decision to hold the winter sessions of the state Assembly in Dharamsala. A Vidhan Sabha Bhawan was built for this purpose at Tapovan, and the foundation stone was laid by Virbhadra himself in 2006.
It was a deft political move, one even the BJP could not oppose. Although the Congress lost the Assembly polls in 2007, Dhumal's BJP government let the practice continue.
A political masterstroke?
Now, with his latest move, Virbhadra has caught his political rivals off guard.
Congress ministers, MLAs, chairmen and vice-chairmen of various boards and corporations are falling over themselves to welcome the move, saying that Dharamsala is not only the headquarters of a district, but also a central place easily accessible to the people of the adjoining districts.
According to them, the decision would directly benefit the people of these districts, and would also facilitate in redressing their issues with ease.
The BJP, meanwhile, has cried foul, calling Virbhadra's announcement a political stunt. "It was our party that had started the practice of ministers and even the CM camping in Dharamshala in 1998, to listen to the problems of the people of the region. By taking such decisions in the poll year, the Congress is trying to play the regional card," said BJP spokesperson Ganesh Dutt.
"But this will be to no avail, as the people see through such political stunts. We would be more keen to know what the Virbhadra government has done for the people in the last four years; how much time his ministers have given to this area by camping here."
A senior mediaperson, who has been covering Himachal for more than a decade, applauded the politics behind Virbhadra's decision.
"It is a clever political move. It will be a burden on the state exchequer, but that has never been of any concern to the political class in the state," he said.
Edited by Shreyas Sharma