Pratibha Chauhan in Shimla
The crux of an election lies in the trustworthiness of political opponents. No matter how small a state is, the bigger picture is defined by the smorgasbord of principal players’ ambitions amplified before a people relentlessly aspiring for a better life. In democracy’s onward march, stakeholders run the risk of falling into a clichéd cycle of existence: the more things change, the more they stay the same. Who wants it?
In bipolar Himachal Pradesh, where elections are due November 9, there are truths, half-truths and lambent latitudinarian political sameness — the issues are more or less the same; while the responses are even sharper bordering on disaffection. Take a few steps back and look at the broader picture as the high-pitched campaigning tires itself out and the ultimate arbiter — the people — queue up to decide their destiny:
2012: The highlight of the ruling Congress manifesto in the previous polls was unemployment allowance, which the party fulfilled, but only last year, by giving Rs 1,000 and Rs 1,500 per month to the disabled.
The party government also provided skill development allowance to almost 1.75 lakh youth on which over Rs 100 crore was spent since it was launched in 2013. There are 10 lakh unemployed educated youth in the state.
The main Congress slogan against the previous BJP regime was ‘Himachal on sale.’ The party accused the then BJP government of giving prime land to private universities, hydropower projects and, most important, to HP Cricket Association, headed by the then CM PK Dhumal’s MP son, Anurag Thakur. About half-a-dozen cases were registered by the State Vigilance Bureau against Dhumal, Anurag and other officials.
This time, Congress chief minister Virbhadra Singh is playing the victim card: he says he is being hounded by the ruling BJP at the Centre as he has been “falsely” framed by the CBI, Enforcement Directorate and Income Tax.
BJP’s response: The party has accused Virbhadra of corruption, nepotism and poor governance. The BJP’s entire election campaign has targeted the CM, the star Congress campaigner. All BJP leaders, right from Prime Minister Narendra Modi and party chief Amit Shah, have sought to put Virbhadra in the dock over corruption charges. The BJP says drug, mining, land, liquor, forest and transfer mafia have been flourishing under the patronage of the Congress government.
The accusations and shrillness are taking place in a state devoid of a third force — except in 1990 when the Janata Dal and its alliance HC won 11 seats and Sukh Ram’s political outfit, the Himachal Vikas Congress, won five seats in 1998. Today, the neo anti-corruption champion AAP is no more in the picture; its decision to stay away is seen more in the background of its rout in neighbouring Punjab a few months ago. Also, the reach of electronic and social media has transformed electioneering. The situation is such that on any given day of campaigning, a voter is shown at least ten times the speeches of Modi, Amit Shah, Sonia Gandhi or Rahul Gandhi.
Regional & caste divide: The Punjab Reorganization Act 1966 sowed the seeds of it. Parts of Punjab were merged into Himachal, leading to the creation of Old Himachal (upper Himachal) and merged areas (lower Himachal). While Old Himachal (parts of Shimla, Sirmaur, Solan, Bialspur, Chamba and Mandi) was considered a Congress stronghold, the merged areas of Kangram, Hamirpur, Una and Kullu emerged as BJP bastions. Over the years, the BJP and Congress have used the regional card. And so is the two parties’ approach to the caste, though the state has the second highest literacy rate (88%) only after Kerala.
Money power: The complexity of managing elections is getting tougher with unrestricted flow of money despite curbs on party funding and election expenditure by the Election Commission. According to data compiled by the National Election Watch and Association for Democratic Reforms, based on the expenditure documents of all the 68 elected MLAs in 2012, the average money spent was just 62% of the total expense limit of Rs 16 lakh (now revised to Rs 28 lakh). The party-wise average election expenses showed that the average spending for 36 MLAs of the Congress was Rs 7.l2 lakh, for the BJP’s 26 MLAs it was Rs 6.82 lakh and for five Independent MLAs, Rs 4.77 lakh. Obviously, these expenses sound reliable, and five years from then on, the amount is insignificant.
Sound bites: The voter has little choice as it is a fight between ‘amir crorepati vs garib crorepati’ and ‘kam bhrasht vs zyada bhrasht, says OP Bhuraita, coordinator of Himachal Election Watch in association with Association of Democratic Reforms.
An NGO, Gyan Vigyan Samiti, has held awareness drives for voters. “We have so far organized 1,200 Jan Sansad called ‘Mera vote, mera Himachal.’ People most often are swayed by deities, caste and region,” says Bhuraita. He doubts if any of the candidates is able to manage the election within the Rs 28 lakh expenditure limit fixed by Election Commission.
“The political dynamics are changing rapidly as 65% of the population is in the 18-35 years age group. For the qualitative growth of a democracy, I strongly feel that dynastic politics must not be a norm, though there can be exception as merit cannot be ignored merely because a candidate is from a political family,” says Prof Ramesh Chauhan, chairman of political science department at Himachal Pradesh University.
Mansa Ram (77) is the senior-most MLA of the present 12th Vidhan Sabha. He successfully contested the 1967 election as an independent. He is seeking re-election from the Karsog constituency in Mandi district after having won five elections.
“In 1967, I managed my entire campaign as an Independent with a paltry Rs 1,000, covering the constituency on foot, with not even one vehicle. My supporters had made a cutout of my symbol which they showed to people in villages,” he says.
This election, he says, the money flow to Himachal Pradesh is on the lines of Bihar or UP. “It is extremely difficult to manage funds for the elections,” he says.
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