By Nimesh Bansal
Himachal Pradesh registered a record 74.6 percent turnout in the 68-members assembly elections. The turnout narrowly broke the 2003 record of 74.5 percent voter turnout as Bharatiya Janta Party (BJP) looks to capitalise on Himachal’s anti-incumbency tendencies.
Himachal’s history of hopping
Since 1993, Himachal Pradesh has seen a regime change every five years—alternating between the Congress and the BJP. This can be attributed to the unique political environment in the hill state. A Shimla resident explained, “The hills have their own issues which make the politics in Himachal Pradesh different. People are very aware here and vote keeping their development in mind.” The state has always seen a high voter turnout—over 71 percent in all elections since 1993. As a result, Himachal Pradesh has been one of the most economically prosperous states in northern India. It also scores high on literacy, education and health. Following Sikkim, Himachal became the country’s second open defecation free state last October.
The BJP is not content with the rotational nature of government in Himachal Pradesh. Rallying in the state, BJP chief Amit Shah claimed, “Himachal Pradesh main aisi sarkar banayenge jo sirf panch saal nahi, agle 10 aur 15 saal rahegi (In Himachal Pradesh we will make such a government that stays for not just five years but for the next 10-15 years).” This is why the saffron party announced 73-years-old former Chief Minister (CM), Prem Kumar Dhumal, as its candidate. He is up against Congress stalwart, incumbent and six times CM, 83-years-old Virbhadra Singh. The outcome is said to depend largely on three major districts—Kangra, Mandi and Shimla. These three districts make up 33 of the 68 assembly seats in the state. Congress holds sway in the biggest district of the three—Kangra. However, the BJP has an edge in Mandi and Shimla.
The state’s lukewarm response to both parties
Both the parties have been canvassing for votes on the pillar of development, but are marred by past actions. Congress’s handling of the Gudiya rape and murder case has left an indelible blot on their record. The party has failed to address the issue of crimes against women during their tenure. If voted into power, BJP has promised to tackle that by launching a ‘Gudiya helpline’. It will be a round-the-clock helpline across police stations to ensure safety for women. The Congress’s case is further weakened as the incumbent CM and their candidate, Virbhadra Singh, is under probe by CBI and the Enforcement Directorate in an alleged disproportionate assets case.
The BJP still cannot rest easy as policies of the Centre have had an adverse impact in the state. Demonetisation and GST have been causes of concern in the Himachal. These policies have crippled the small businesses in the state—businesses which are the backbone of Himachal’s economy. A resident said, “GST is a complicated process. It is difficult for small businesses to make the transition without any support from the government. People are still trying to figure out the process. It has added an additional burden on the people.” Nevertheless, in a state that is overwhelmingly Hindu, the BJP will be hoping for a favourable result.
The game of numbers
As the state went to the polls, both sides would have been tracking the numbers. Sirmaur district recorded the highest turnout at 81.5 percent voting, while Hamirpur—PK Dhumal’s home district—had the lowest at 70.19 percent. However, this remains higher than the 68.04 percent turnout in 2012 when BJP lost power to the Congress. Worryingly for the BJP, the assembly in Shimla recorded the lowest turnout at 63.76 percent, while Doon assembly the highest at 88.95 percent. Moreover, Congress’s stronghold of Kangra showed an increase in voter turnout with 78 percent against 70.59 percent in 2012. As a silver lining for the BJP, the voter turnout in Mandi also increased to 78 percent from 76.08 percent five years ago. Despite the mixed numbers, BJP remains confident of returning to power in Himachal Pradesh.
A nervous wait
The counting of votes will begin on 18 December amongst elaborate security arrangements. A three-tier security system has been enforced with at least 23 companies of Central paramilitary forces deployed for round-the-clock security. Further, 100 rooms have been set up at 48 locations with CCTV surveillance.
The period from now to the counting day will also see poll processes completed in Gujarat. As the BJP aims to benefit from the anti-incumbency sentiment in Himachal, Congress hopes to benefit from the same in Gujarat. A month of tense anticipation beckons.