By: Prem R Bhardwaj*
Special arrangement with and Courtesy: Economic and Political Weekly
A web of factors such as intra-party dissidence, anti-incumbency linked to poor performance and a better organised Bharatiya Janata Party were responsible for the Congress’ defeat in the recently concluded assembly elections in Himachal Pradesh. This election also proved that the political party system in Himachal remains predominantly a two-party system.
The results of the recently held Himachal Pradesh (HP) assembly elections show that the speculation of most political analysts and media, particularly about the emergence of the third force or performance of Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP), have been proven false. For the first time, out of 68 assembly seats the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) won 41 seats on its own, well above the required majority. There was an over 8 per cent swing of votes in favour of the BJP taking the party vote share from 35.38 per cent in 2003 to over 43 per cent in 2007 and the vote share of the Congress coming down by about 2 per cent, from 41 per cent to 39 per cent. Once again it has been established that the state has a stable bi-party system and despite the wide propaganda and large-scale canvassing, the BSP could not emerge as an influential third force. After the declaration of results it is clear that the public mandate reflects a balanced kind of picture this time so far as region-wise performance of the BJP is concerned.
The party could not do well in the Kangra district (part of the new Himachal – the traditionally stronghold of BJP) where it could win only nine seats out of 16 whereas in Solan (part of old Himachal having traditional stronghold of the Congress) it swept the elections by winning all five seats. Though, the general political scenario in the state reflects that power is shared alternatively by the Congress and BJP, the performance of both the government and the representatives remains the sole factor that has influenced the political behaviour of the people.
Strategic Failure of the Congress
The electoral politics in the state began with the sudden declaration of assembly elections by the Election Commission in the second week of October 2007. The timing of declaration of election was probably more shocking for the Congress as its leader, chief minister Virbhadra Singh, was abroad in the US and the BJP welcomed the move of the Election Commission because it prevented the Congress government from making some politically lucrative announcements, which it kept deliberately pending with the objective of declaring them just before the assembly elections.
Right at the outset the Congress was not in a position to respond to this move of the Election Commission and the party was defensive. It reacted out of sheer shock and its leader Virbhadra Singh stated that “such moves of the Election Commission would lead to (a) constitutional crisis in the state” and blamed the Election Commission for this. The educated electorate was unable to understand this position of the Congress. Not only that, the chief minister’s repeated statement that the “present government will stay in office even after elections irrespective of the outcome of the elections” sent the message that the Congress Party leadership was apprehensive of its electoral performance. Such statements exposed the lack of preparation for polls in the established political party and sent a message that the party had expected defeat even before the elections. The Congress’ criticism of the Election Commission was unwarranted and tarnished the image of both the party and its leadership, which only helped in the anti-incumbency factor against the government. The first impression that came from the party headquarters was that the party had no strategy for the assembly elections.
As in the past, factional politics again played a prominent role in HP especially during the process of ticket distribution in both the major political parties. Factional politics during ticket distribution is quite a national phenomenon, but this was practised with a new vigour in the assembly elections in HP this time.
During the recent assembly elections, it was also apparent that compared to the Congress, the number of BJP candidates nominated owing to political patronage from the party leadership was fewer. This trend was reflected in the public image of such candidates. The media scrutiny of such patronage influenced the voting behaviour of the people in the state. It was clear that this patronage became more prominent when the struggle for political dominance within a party intensified, or when there was a new challenge to the established party leadership.
The Congress has a history of imposition of leadership on orders by the centre. For instance, the leadership of Virbhadra Singh was imposed despite Thakur Ram Lal’s claims in the early 1980s and similarly, Sukh Ram threatened the leadership of Virbhadra Singh in the early 1990s. Against the will of Virbhadra Singh, this election witnessed the handing of party tickets to candidates who ultimately lost. For instance, Prakash Karad and Vidhya Jar, the official party candidates from Arki and Nadaunta respectively, held Virbhadra Singh responsible for their defeat. The allegation that there was to be yet another imposition of leadership in the Congress was reiterated when the central high command did not declare the chief ministerial candidate during the elections. In essence, therefore, Virbhadra Singh was saddled with the impression of having to struggle within the party instead of against the BJP. This, despite his recognition of being not only a prominent party leader, but also a solid mass leader in the state. The sense of insecurity probably compelled Virbhadra Singh to grant tacit patronage to some of the dissidents of the party.
During the assembly elections it appeared that the BJP was more disciplined as compared to the Congress and that provided an upper edge to the BJP before and during the polls. That the BJP was more tactful in handling factionalism became evident with the way the party distributed tickets and announced Prem Kumar Dhumal as its chief ministerial candidate.
If analysed meticulously these two actions (distribution of tickets and naming of the chief ministerial candidate well before the elections) were part of a well-designed strategy of the BJP. Firstly, as reported in the media, the opinion of Shanta Kumar, national vice-president of the BJP and strong contender for the chief minister’s post, was given consideration during the process of distributing tickets, at least in Kangra segment, a fact that made him come out and canvass for the BJP candidates. The party simultaneously declared Prem Kumar Dhumal as its chief ministerial candidate, which strengthened the position of the party in the Hamirpur segment. Thus, strategically, the party leadership consolidated the workers in two main segments – Kangra and Hamirpur – the regions in which BJP experienced the worst kinds of intra-party factionalism during last elections.
Coincidentally, Prem Kumar Dhumal was more acceptable compared to Shanta Kumar in old Himachal where the Congress has enjoyed traditional dominance. Thus, by declaring Dhumal as its chief ministerial candidate, the BJP gained support both in the old as well as the new Himachal areas.
Politics of Regionalism in State
Unlike the previous elections, during which the BJP cadre were divided due to intra-party factionalism on the basis of regional considerations between the two centres, Kangra and Hamirpur, reflecting in the leadership battle between Shanta Kumar and Dhumal (representing the two centres), the BJP was able to tide over such differences this time. It projected the issue of regionalism in an organised fashion owing to the increased support for the party in the old Himachal region. Except for the Simaur district, where the party made serious mistakes while distributing party tickets to candidates incapable of winning despite the anti-incumbency factor against the Congress, the party managed to win substantially in other constituencies in old Himachal. The regional divide was conspicuously absent in the BJP election rhetoric and thus it managed not to lose support for the party as well as party members from these regions.
Rejection of BSP as Third Force
This time once again, just like in 1998, the emergence of a third force in the form of the BSP sensitised the political environment at least for psephologists. Many political analysts and the media speculated that the performance of the BSP during the current assembly elections would enforce new permutations and combinations, both before and after the elections. Such speculation was contrary to the fact that the electorate in the state has always been in tune with a two-party system and had rejected the third alternative in the past also.
It is clear that so far BSP neither has an organised political cadre in the state nor a solid social base. Despite the political sensitisation of dalits to the so-called “Mayawati phenomenon”, a distinct and organised dalit vote bank could not emerge to the level where it could influence or manoeuvre the established political structure in the state. This was mainly because the BSP leadership in the state did not emerge out of a dalit movement. Instead the party tried to harvest a vote bank from that of the established political parties with the help of dissidents.
The voter base of the BSP did increase significantly, however, from 0.7 per cent in 2003 to over 7 per cent during the current assembly elections, but this number cannot be termed a BSP vote bank, as the vote was not quite intended for the party but for the party candidates, culled from the dissident sections of the established parties, the Congress and the BJP. In essence those voting for the BSP were voting for the personal image of the candidates fielded by the party. Even in Kangra district, from where the state convenor of BSP, Vijay Singh Mankotia hailed, the party got only 9.93 per cent of the vote and it could win only one seat in the region. In Kullu the party was able to fetch 16.67 per cent of polled votes primarily because of the personality factor. Essentially, personality vote was what counted in the enhanced performance for the party rather than a distinct voting pattern for the party as such. In essence, despite the not-so-insignificant increase in votes gathered by the BSP, a third party alternative was rejected by the electorate.
Even the prime defectors decided to go it alone as independents rather than allying with the BSP owing to their understanding of the two-party polarisation in the state. Added to this was the fact that the dissidents hoped to retain their factional support to regain positions in the intra-party cleavages in the main political parties.
The past trends in state politics reveal that there is always an element of anti-incumbency against the representatives and the government. It is only the matter of degree that varies form election to election.
Right at the outset it can be stated that the brokers of political power, mainly the party workers and aspiring leaders had spoiled the image of both the ruling party (the Congress) as well as the government among the people. So it is evident that the streamlining of political patronage to unaccountable political brokers was mainly responsible for growth of anti-incumbency among the masses. The people wanted a direct link with the government and no political middleman was acceptable to them.
Though this was an important factor that tarnished the image of the Virbhadra Singh-led government, there were various other factors, which certainly influenced the political behaviour of people in the state. The issue of unemployment was quite important, particularly among the youth in the state. The general impression was that despite the growth of industrialisation and huge investment of private capital, the government could not generate ample opportunities for employment. Moreover, the government imposed a blanket ban on regular employment in government sector. Though, in some service sectors, especially education, temporary/adhoc recruitments were made, these could not meet the aspirations of educated youth.
Ostensibly for employment generation, the government devised policies such as Parents Teachers Association (PTA) and Primary Assistant Teachers (PAT) in the education sector, which ironically invited a lot of criticism from all quarters of society. The opposition and educated sections criticised the PTA policy and lamented it as a back-door way of favouring kith and kin. Instead of gaining from these policies, the party paid a dear price for implementing these. Educated youth demanded a judicious policy of recruitment, especially in education. But in the minds of the public, the government had not responded well enough to public criticism. There had been reports of fraudulent transfers of teachers from schools done on orders from local leaders to benefit people close to them and this was not welcomed by the public who found the policy to be not only irrational but also discriminatory. Consequently, the youths were annoyed with the government and this anguish was reflected in the vote.
Similarly, opening of a large number of government colleges (over 20 in one year, 2006-07) and schools in rural areas without providing proper infrastructure and competent staff, downgraded the image of the government. The people were not impressed with the opening up of such a large number of institutions without any focus on quality. So, unexpectedly for the Congress, the common masses did not appreciate this move of the government which invited only more criticism of the populist measures.
Corruption of Congress
Probably, the most important factor that tarnished the image of the both the Congress and the government was the issue of corruption. This was the same issue that the Congress had harped on when it came into the power during the previous elections. The government could hardly establish its claim of a clean administration during its term. The Virbhadra Singh-led government could not come out with substantial evidence, especially in highly propagandised cases registered against S D Sharma, then vice chancellor of Himachal Pradesh University, S M Katwal, the then chairman of HP State Subordinate Selection Board (HPSSSB) and against Prem Kumar Dhumal for the well publicised alleged computer hard disc episode. In addition to the above, the government failed miserably in the eradication of corruption from public life. The people of the state felt that corruption was probably of the highest degree during the last four and half years.
Besides the above, the issue of a price rise of essential commodities also added to the anti-incumbency factor. Though, this was a national phenomenon, the electoral performance of the sitting government was affected adversely simply because it pointed out failure of the government to contain the rising prices. Despite the distribution of extra food for two months through the public distribution system to poor people of the state, the government could not tackle the wave of anti-incumbency in the state.
There was a strong impression among the masses that the sitting government was quite insensitive to public issues such as problems of drinking water facilities and health services. The people in rural areas faced a serious water crisis and the government did little to resolve it even during the election year. The same was the story of health services in rural areas. There were hospitals without doctors and requisite infrastructure in rural areas.
Historically, it is established that government employees play a crucial role in creating and precipitating anti-incumbency against a government, especially during assembly elections. It is clear that this section of voters was also not satisfied with the working of the government. The perceptions of 2.5 lakh government employees were able to influence the voting behaviour of the large number of voters in state. That is why the Congress tried damage control through a party manifesto which was released in Kangra district with a clear intention to allure voters from new Himachal. The Congress declared in its manifesto that it would increase the retirement age of its employees from 58 to 60 years if it won the assembly elections. But even this announcement could not attract the employees towards itself simply because the government did nothing in this regard during its four and half years of tenure. Not only that, the employees felt annoyed because of grant of political patronage by the government to some of the employee leaders who were allegedly involved in a transfer racket about which the government claimed it was ignorant. At the same time, there had been punitive threats against those employees who dared to criticise or oppose the policies or decisions of the government.
All these factors created a very significant degree of anti-incumbency against the Congress government that destroyed anything creditable the government did during its four and half years term. It appeared from the body language and from the public behaviour of party workers that the the Congress leadership had sensed the wave of anti-incumbency among the voting populace.
It was because of this undercurrent of anti-incumbency that the Congress lost the elections miserably. Since this is a small state, the personality of a public representative is always scrutinised closely by the people every time. The shift of a small amount of votes from one party to the other causes a total change in the power structure. So both – representatives and governments – have to perform sensibly if they have to retain power in a state like Himachal Pradesh.
* Prem R Bhardwaj is at the Government Postgraduate College, Nahan, Himachal Pradesh University.