Can the old warhorse of Himachal Pradesh chief minister Virbhadra Singh win the most crucial election of his life? Political pundits swear he will not be able to break away from the anti-incumbency trend wherein since 1985, people of this state have always booted the ruling party out of power every five years.
Singh realises this only too well. At 83 years, he knows he is not going to get another chance and so he is leading the charge from the front. But he is facing a formidable enemy in the BJP armada and with the BJP high command’s announcement of PK Dhumal’s as chief ministerial candidate, some of the stings from the Congress criticism of infighting in the BJP ranks has come to a halt.
But Singh is not a man to give up easily. He is seen as being one of the major architects of this state and credit for its positive educational and social indicators must be given to him since he has already been chief minister for six terms. He has not cultivated any one constituency and has fought each election from a different constituency. He enjoys such a hold on the state that he seldom visits these constituencies prior to the election but has succeeded in romping home to victory each time over.
On 2 November he addressed a large rally at Rehan (Kangra) in which he accused Prime Minister Narendra Modi and the BJP of misusing money and muscle power to win the state polls given that he himself was in dire straits as all his bank accounts had been sealed by the CBI and the Enforcement Directorate.
“I have not seen (in my life) such a public display and misuse of power and money as you and the BJP are doing in Himachal Pradesh polls,” he told the crowds pointing an accusing finger at Modi.
A leading Solan businessman Gagan Verma pointed out, “He (Virbadhra Singh) enjoys a close rapport with bureaucrats and so manages to get work done. During this tenure he has focused on the building of roads and establishment of schools and colleges working through the Himachal Pradesh Industrial Development Corporation.”
Verma’s wife, Anjali, a Shimla High Court lawyer is more critical of the Congress regime. She feels, the Congress has been lax in its handling of crimes against women and children.
Anjali cites the failure of the government machinery and especially the police in tracking down the murderers of four-year-old Yug Gupta and of young Gudiya who was brutally raped and murdered. Another murder was that of the forest guard Hoshiar Singh in Bilaspur. The administrative machinery failed to solve any of these murders which have now been handed over to the CBI she pointed out.
“The molestation of young girls in the female orphanage in Chamba is also a frightening reminder of how Himachal, considered a safe state for women, is going the way of Uttar Pradesh and Bihar,” Anjali said.
She also expressed concern about growing drug addiction amongst the youth. “We have seen what has happened in the neighbouring state of Punjab and our state has to take extra precautions to stop this menace which is not being done,” she said.
Social worker Kiran Bawa running an NGO and school in Shimla is also concerned at the trafficking of young girls from the interiors of Himachal Pradesh.
“This trend is on the rise and the state women commission is also aware of this but no action has been taken on the ground. These girls are often taken by traffickers under the guise of getting married to them but once they leave their villages, there is no trace of them and their distraught parents have no one to turn to,” said Bawa.
Bawa also expressed concern about the large number of liquor vends coming up outside schools. “Growing alcoholism is another problem in our state and it is high time the administration took steps to address it,’ she said.
The other issue of concern has been a large number of jaundice deaths in Shimla due to the mixing of a sewage line with drinking water. A cross-section of Shimlaites decries the sharp decline of municipal facilities in what used to be one of India’s most favoured tourist destinations.
Retired bureaucrat SN Joshi of the Himachal Pradesh cadre is extremely distressed at how environmental issues have been completely bypassed by both BJP and Congress. “Our glaciers are melting. There has been a complete mismanagement of our rivers and as a result, Shimla and other cities face a major water crisis in the summer month. The state needs to give importance to industries in the primary sector which include animal husbandry, fisheries, agriculture and horticulture,” he said.
Joshi also expressed concern at the effect of the four-lane road being constructed between Chandigarh and Shimla. “This will reduce the driving time to two hours but imagine the kind of traffic congestion and pollution we will face in Shimla. The governments have to focus on this.”
Congress leader Kuldeep Singh Rathore admitted that a great deal more needs to be done to develop the state.
“Himachal Pradesh has many unexplored areas which have tremendous tourist potential. Another area that we need to focus and develop is horticulture especially as our apples are now facing competition from apples grown in Brazil, China and the United States,” said Rathore.
But he dismissed charges of corruption especially the case of disproportionate assets that have been levied against Virbhadra saying, “Serious charges of corruption have also been levied against BJP president Amit Shah’s son. How come the government has failed to take action against him?”
Dhumal also enjoys a pan Himachal presence.
Devender Singh who teaches law at the Panjab University is a loyal Shimlaite who believes that the BJP has edged forward after the announcement of Dhumal’s candidature. Devender pointed out, “Congress is a divided house and that will work against the chief minister. Dhumal has also shown his mettle as an administrator and that will also go in his favour.”
Virbhadra belongs to the royal family of Bushahr. The people of this region have not forgiven the Centre for conducting raids in his home on the day his daughter was getting married. The Himachalis remain a conservative lot and for them, family and filial feelings enjoy great importance. But despite their loyalty to Virbhadra, whether he can overcome the BJP juggernaut with their multiple war rooms and quadruple yatras is the moot point.