New Delhi, Sep 16: Barely a month left for the announcement of assembly elections in Himachal Pradesh, Chief Minister Jai Ram Thakur is already in poll mode . Now, he awaits the arrival of Prime Minister Narendra Modi to blow the election bugle at Mandi-his home district on September 24.
Modi will address the Yuva-Sankalp rally of one lakh youths -all in the age below 40 years, first of its kind event.
Yet, before Modi takes the poll command in his hand, all eyes are on Kangra – the state’s largest district. On Tuesday, the Chief Minister put-up a massive show of strength at Kangra, an OBC stronghold next to Dharamshala – a landmark foothill town, which is also regarded as the state’s second capital, after Shimla. Dharamshala is also popular as the abode of Tibetan Spiritual Leader, the Dalai Lama.
One of the biggest pledges Thakur made in Kangra was dedicating BJP’s forthcoming victory in the upcoming assembly polls to party veteran Shanta Kumar, who turned 89 a day before Chief Minister reached out to him at Palampur.
Kangra, which has 15 assembly seats, highest literacy ratio and best connectivity of road and air, has remained the strongest fortress of the BJP dominated by Shanta Kumar – a two time Chief Minister and former union minister for half the century. He is one of the surviving old guards of the Jan Sangh and BJP in the country.
Kangra is known for having the oldest serving Royal Dynasty in the world, the Katoch. It’s house of 30 per cent of OBC population having considerable impact on at least eight assembly segments.
In the state, where the Congress and BJP have been alternating power after every five years, Kangra has been holding the key to the change. But this, the BJP is talking about “Rivaaj Badaldo” (buck the trend).
This means that the BJP, in order to maintain the trend set by states of Uttar Pradesh, Uttrakhand, Manipur and Goa, have to win Kangra. The party had won 11 out of 15 seats in 2017 elections to make it to power, ousting Virbhadra Singh.
Earlier to this in 2012 polls, the Congress had won 11 seats in Kangra and reduced the BJP to single digit at three with two independents getting elected to the House. Virbhadra Singh romped home alternating the BJP government.
Prior to this, he had to resign from the union cabinet in UPA-II following a corruption case in Shimla. Yet, he became Chief Minister for the sixth time as Kangra and adjoining district of Chamba facilitated his return to power defying all odds, including Congress factionalism and his age. The congress won more than 10 seats in Kangra alone.
The first-time BJP (then Janata Party) swept the Congress out of power in 1977 under Shanta Kumar. The Janta Party had won 13. Shanta Kumar was first erstwhile Jan Sangh leader from Kangra region to become a non-congress Chief Minister.
Another turn around for the BJP was in 1990 when Shanta Kumar again led the party to a massive victory. This time again, the party won 12 seats and BJP’s alliance partner Janata Dal wrested three seats in Kangra. Veterans like Kanwar Gurga Chand were among JD winners.
Similarly in 1998, when BJP stormed to power defeating the Congress, the party won 10 seats in Kangra and formed the government under Prem Kumar Dhumal entering into a coalition with Himachal Vikas Congress (HVC)-an outfit led by Pandit Sukh Ram.
In the forthcoming elections, the challenge for Jai Ram Thakur is not only to retain the fortress of Kangra, Thakur’s task is clearly cut-out to prove the BJP’s popularity in the state and his performance is enough to keep the Congress out of the power as the BJP did in the states like Haryana, Uttarakhand and UP. History is against him. Thus Kangra certainly will play a decisive role, apart from Thakur’s home district-Mandi, where the BJP had won nine out of 10 seats in 2017 polls.
There was a setback too in 2021. The BJP lost the Mandi Parliamentary seat to Pratibha Singh, former Chief Minister Virtbhadra Singh’s wife in bypoll. Three assembly seats which witnessed byelection also were won by the congress. This is what is making the Congress confident to see its chances of replacing the BJP – the trend of alternating the government will stay on, says Sukhwinder Sukhu, Congress’ campaign head.
Nevertheless, BJP is hoping to do well in Kangra.
“The elections are being held under a changed scenario. We have the tallest leader like Prime Minister Narendra Modi. It’s due to his leadership, the BJP has won four states defying the 37-yr old history. We have done fairly well for the past four and half years with focus on equitable development of all regions. Kangra particularly has witnessed massive infrastructure development and welfare initiatives,” says Chief Minister Jai Ram Thakur.
Thakur recalls the first global investors meeting hosted at Dharamshala which Prime Minister Narendra Modi attended. Modi ji also visited Dharamshala second time when a conference of Chief Secretaries was held. He will be touring the state this month for a rally at Mandi and thereafter will come to Bilaspur to inaugurate Rs 1400 cr AIIMS project. He has given the state Rs 1200 cr. bulk drug park-one of three proposed in the country and now tribal status to Hatee community in Sirmaur-a demand pending for 40 years.
But, this is not where the BJP has odds in Kangra. The gradual erosion of the BJP support in Kangra is attributed to weakening of the party leadership. This helped former Chief Minister Virbhadra Singh to capitalise in Kangra region and develop a bond with Kangra -also called as new Himachal. He is credited of setting of major government offices, Institutions and strengthening road infrastructure. He set-up a second State assembly complex at Dharamshala and also named it as “second capital.”
There were also some of the strong Kangra leaders in the congress like Pt Sant Ram, Sat Mahajan, Viplove Thakur, Chander Kumar and G. S. Bali. The district is quite a mix of Rajput, Brahamin and OBC leaders.
Since Virbhadra Singh hailed from the old Himachal area, representing Rohru, Rampur and Shimla (rural) he took pains to ensure much balanced development of Kangra. Shanta Kumar being a native of Kangra and rose from positions from a panchayat panch to union minister overshadowed all leaders.
Dharamshala-based senior Journalist Naveen Sharma, (Editor, Dainik Jagran) strongly endorses the view that “road to power in Shimla passes through Kangra.” This, he says, happens to be a historical fact.
It was Virbhadra Singh who understood it more than any other successor Chief Ministers and out-poured his efforts to see Kangra progressing though he could not bring the Congress back to power, after five year.
“Virbhadra tried to build an emotional relationship with Kangra. Successor BJP Chief Minister Prem Kumar Dhumal also made an effort though not as strong as that of Virbhadra Singh. But, Jai Ram Thakur did not make an effort to replicate Kangra sentiments,” Sharma analyses.
The BJP’s problems in Kangra are multiple. After Shanta Kumar decided to retire from electoral politics, the party did not groom second line Kangra leadership. Party senior Vipin Parmar, a Shanta loyalist initially inducted as cabinet minister and later made Speaker of the assembly is one seen rising to the horizon yet has a limited out-reach .
Krishan Kapoor, another senior and Shanta loyalist is a sitting Lok Sabha member but feels completely side-lined in the current dispensation of the rule though being a Gaddi leader he has a considerable base.
Looking at gains from the OBC factor, the BJP had Sraveen Chaudhary, a three-time minister. She too has no mass base. Thus, the party has to rope in Pawan Kajal, a sitting Congress MLA (Kangra) to join the party. Chief Minister shared the stage with him first-time on Tuesday when put up a show of strength as BJP leader.
Since 1998, the BJP has not been able to win the Kangra assembly seat-which returned the Congress, BSP and even independents to the House. To get its foothold in this OBC dominant belt, the BJP has got Pawan Kajal-incumbent MLA and Congress’ working president join the party. Kajal has a strong connection with his constituents – overwhelmingly the OBC community.
The Congress, on the other hand, is trying to encash on anti-incumbency and ‘injustice’ with Kangra during Jai Ram Thakur’s tenure. But the party finds itself at loss due to the demise of Virbhadra Singh and veteran leader G. S. Bali in 2021 as the BJP banks on its organisational network, huge resource base in hand and Modi’s magic to work in the state.
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