Himachal Pradesh Election Diary – Part 1
June 1999, near Point 5140, overlooking the Leh-Srinagar highway, Kargil:
A young television journalist visits the make-shift tent of an army company which is regrouping after successfully capturing point 5140 at 17000 feet above sea level. She is typically looking for some good sound bites from a successful campaign.
“After another bunker was captured… my company’s success signal was Yeh Dil Maange More!” quips the young Captain of the company.
That was the defining moment of India’s first television war. It also had a huge impact on the lives of the two protagonists involved in that television moment. That year, Barkha Dutt, the young NDTV journalist won the Chameli Devi Jain award and went on to become a celebrity news TV anchor and a powerful voice in India’s television circuit. Over the next decade she attained such fame and acquired so much power that almost exactly 10 years later, in June 2009, she was rumoured to have the power to influence the formation of union cabinet. Captain Vikram Batra went on to re-capture two more peaks for India and finally died in the wee hours of the morning of 7th July 1999, while trying to rescue an injured fellow officer at peak 4875. He was awarded the Param Vir Chakra for his extra-ordinary bravery and indubitable leadership.
Present day, near the agriculture university, Palampur, Himachal Pradesh:
Adjacent to the agriculture university in Palampur, on the busy arterial road at the Holta camp is an IOC fuel station that is almost always deserted, so much so that one is left to wonder if finally Indian citizens have decided that they can no longer afford petroleum products because of the sharp increase in the prices. But the heavy vehicular traffic around the fuel station presents a contrasting picture. The truth is that this IOC fuel station has gained tremendous notoriety among the local populace for selling adulterated fuel, so hardly anyone ever refills their vehicles at that place unless it is an emergency. It was awarded to the Batra family in lieu for the services that Captain Vikram Batra had rendered to the motherland. This IOC filling station in the sleepy town of Palampur symbolizes everything that is wrong with India today. It tells us how we treat our heroes with nothing but tokenism. It tells us how freebies and dole-schemes end up achieving the exact opposite of what they are intended for in the first place. Finally, it also tells us how a thriving underground fuel-economy running on the subsidized kerosene engine can damage the memory of a genuine war hero, while the silly left liberal intellectuals are happy with all the pilferages and have set a low bar of 30% subsidies actually reaching the intended populace.
Palampur has never shied away from sacrificing her young men for protecting the motherland. Vikram Batra was not the first or the only one to lay down his life in Kargil; for Saurabh Kalia also belonged to this small sleepy town of less than 30000 people; nor will he be the last. In fact, Dev Bhumi Himachal Pradesh has an un-severed umbilical cord with the Indian Army; every other family in the state has at least one of the members serving in the army.
The hill state is a congregation of small villages and towns with hardly any major urban centres, and every village is proud of its large posse of ex and serving army men. Actually, apart from the lobby of a large number of government employees, the army lobby is the strongest in the state, but has never been politically streamlined like in the neighbouring hill state of Uttaranchal. Even in electoral terms, just like Uttaranchal, caste and religion do not play a major role in the electoral politics of Himachal Pradesh. In any case, demographically, the hill state is overwhelmingly Hindu in nature – about 95%.
Electoral Landscape of Himachal Pradesh
HP assembly has 68 legislators and the state contributes 4 members to India’s parliament, hardly a bell-weather state in electoral terms. In fact, Himachal Pradesh is a minor blip in India’s electoral map, but this time it has acquired political significance beyond its electoral strength, for Himachal Pradesh will be going to polls with the state of Gujarat in the next few months. These elections might well decide the course of the next LS polls; Himachal is a must win state for both the national parties because if the BJP wins Gujarat, as it is widely expected, then it becomes utmost important for the Congress party to register a victory in the hill state to claim a psychological status quo in the electoral arena. In the event that the BJP wins Himachal, then it would be portrayed as a clean sweep for the opposition party and would further underline the anti-Congress mood in the country. According to one veteran BJP leader from the state, Narendra Modi’s road to Delhi starts from Ahmedabad but traverses through Shimla and Bangalore – Himachal Pradesh and probably Karnataka will decide whether NAMO and BJP can form the next government in Delhi or whether we are destined to have a loose-knit third front experiment supported by the Congress (it is almost a foregone conclusion that the UPA 2 will not last till the MP-Rajasthan-Delhi assembly elections).
Himachal elections are almost totally a bipolar affair, unlike the rest of India including the neighbouring hill state of Uttaranchal. Apart from an odd seat to BSP now and then or pockets of influence that the comrades have in the Shimla university campuses, it is a straight fight between the Congress and the BJP across the state. Himachal elections are also a relatively benign affair when compared to the use of muscle power and multi-Crore-Rupee capex prevalent in other states. This bipolar nature of the state does not make it any easier for the psephologists or the political analysts to predict electoral outcomes because of three major reasons;
1. The internecine battles within both the parties’ state units creating artificial multi-cornered fights –probably more prevalent in Congress; but BJP is no stranger to these phenomena. In fact, political pundits believe that if the Congress loses the election then it would be mostly because of the internal dynamics both at the macro level – as seen in the tussle between the likes of state party president Kaul Singh Thakur and five time chief minister Vir Bhadra Singh and union minister Anand Sharma – and at the micro level –as seen by the campaigns of the likes of G.S Bali (the Nagrota strongman).
2. Sub-regional disparity in voting pattern is pretty high considering that Himachal is a small state both geographically as well as demographically and gives a picture of uniformity at the very outset (95% Hindu). An outside observer would be thoroughly surprised at the sub-regional inconsistencies not only of the political kind but also in the socio-cultural realm – for instance, a foodie can tell you how deliciously different a Kangri-dham is from the dham of Mandi (dham is an exquisite cuisine served at festivals, social functions and marriages).
3. Relatively low victory margins. Roughly 32% of the seats – 22 assembly segments – had less than 2500 votes as victory margins, about 58% or 40 assembly segments were decided by less than 5000 votes in the 2007 assembly elections. Even a marginal shift in the vote share from one party to the other can make or break the prospects of who forms the government in Shimla and anti-incumbency does play a major role; which explains why the state has been vacillating between Congress and BJP every 5 years. Add delimitation to that concoction (although not as potent as in some other states) and you get an even more unpredictable cocktail.
Although there are various sub-regional discrepancies, mostly Himachal is a coherent state with reasonable homogeneity. For instance Pahari, that sing-song language with an inherently lyrical phonetic to it is spoken across the state with various dialects. A majority of the population consists of upper caste Kshatriyas/Rajputs/Thakurs – about 55%. There are various tribes that are listed under the Scheduled tribes like Gaddis who are a semi-nomadic, semi-agricultural, semi pastoral tribe and are considered as politically significant because they constitute roughly about 10 to 12% of the state’s population and are almost evenly spread. Strangely enough, Gaddis themselves are further divided into various sub-castes like Pandits (Brahminical), Kshatriyas and lower castes. There are other tribes too like the Pastoral tribes of Gujjars and Kinners, and then there are the Pangwals who are concentrated in the Chamba region and Lahaulis who have one of the simplest and most efficient divorce systems in the world. Then there is the politically significant community of businessmen of Soods and Baniyas who are as high as 20% in certain parts of the state. As per 2001 census only about 6-7% of the state falls in the category of Scheduled castes and less than 3% constitute other religions like Muslims & Christians. Socio-politically, Himachal Pradesh is divided into two parts;
• Old Himachal – consisting mainly of the original hill state of Shimla, Kullu and Mandi regions – is generally considered as a historical stronghold of the Congress party, now mainly because of Vir Bhadra Singh’s clout in the region
• New Himachal – consisting of hill and semi-hill regions from the erstwhile greater Punjab province like Kangra, Una, Hamirpur regions –is generally considered to be leaning towards BJP
Himachal Pradesh is made up of 12 districts;
Epilogue: There is one major socio-cultural differentiating factor that separates Himachal Pradesh from the rest of India, especially northern states like UP, Bihar and states to the south of Vindhyas like Maharashtra, Karnataka, Tamil Nadu, Andhra Pradesh etc. It is a crucial factor that the state shares with her north-eastern sisters and has had a huge impact in the psycho-social development of her people. It is surprising that social-scientists have not produced any worthwhile commentary on this critical aspect that has created a virtual divide between the hill states and the rest of India. My question to the erudite readers of Centre Right India this week: can you point out what this fundamental socio-cultural dividing factor is?