Does the recent Congress victory in the Karnataka state polls at the other end of the country signal a weariness in some pockets of the ruling party’s politics based on religion? Interestingly, both Karnataka and Himachal have minimal minority votes. Nearly 85 percent of Karnataka’s population and close to 95 percent of Himachal’s population identify as Hindu.
The Congress captured 24 out of 34 wards in the Shimla Municipal Corporation elections, reducing the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) to single digits. The Communist Party of India (Marxist) retained its only traditional Summer Hill ward.
More than a hundred candidates from the BJP, Congress, CPI(M), Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) and other independent candidates had contested elections on 2 May 2023 in this city, the oldest municipality in pre-independence Punjab.
Congress’ sweeping victory in Shimla, the former summer capital of the British India, can be attributed to many factors including its advantage of being incumbent in the state of Himachal Pradesh, where government employees have benefited from its worker-friendly policies such as reviving a popular pension scheme that had been discontinued in 2004, which guaranteed a monthly pension to government employees post-retirement. Government employees in the state had long been demanding its revival.
The winning party’s ‘Sukh Ka Shehar’ (City of Happiness) and ‘Sukh Ki Sarkaar’ (Government of Happiness) campaigns promising good governance in both the city and state also prevailed over its competitors, in particular the BJP.
Foremost on the BJP’s election campaign formulated by their central unit was pushing the Hindu nationalist ideology known as Hindutva, or “Hindu-ness”, a concept first articulated by the right-wing ideologue Veer Savarkar in the 1920s that aims to establish India as a”Hindu Rashtra” (Hindu nation). Many practitioners believe this has nothing to do with Hinduism, the religion.
The BJP campaign also targeted the Congress for not fulfilling all its pre-poll promises before the assembly elections. And thirdly, the party promised several freebies, like exemption of water bills up to usage of 2,000 litres, exemptions of 50% outstanding garbage bills, uniform tax system, streamlining parking system, and so on.
The recent electoral battle largely took place between Congress and the BJP as CPI(M) had fielded their candidates only in certain wards. The Shimla Municipal Corporation has been a Congress stronghold and following the party’s big win in the recently held assembly elections, the Congress was riding high on confidence. It banked on the ‘anti-incumbency’ factor to work against BJP who held the Corporation for the past five years.
It also helped that the CPI(M) fought from only four wards and restricted itself to running a primarily ward-centric local campaign, raising issues like a proportionate property tax system; and opposition to the dilution of Section 118 of the Land and Tenancy Act, 1972, which restricts people from outside the state from buying land in the area. They also exposed corrupt practices of the BJP members in the smart city projects.
There are many factors behind the Congress’ Shimla victory, which may reflect the situation elsewhere too.
Firstly, the people of Shimla seem to have had enough of BJP’s “Hindutva narrative’ and have given a thumbs up to the ‘Himachaliyat narrative’ of the Congress, which focuses more on local issues as it did in the 2022 assembly elections.
Secondly, despite BJP leaders attacking Himachal Chief Minister Sukhwinder Singh Sukhu, people seem satisfied with his governance. This time round, the Congress won local bodies seats they had not won for decades.
Thirdly, the Congress’ fulfillment of the promise under the Old Pension Scheme played a decisive role in strengthening the employee vote bank which has a huge presence in the city since Shimla is the capital and houses all state government offices.
Congress State President Pratibha Singh also played a major role by distributing tickets based on winnability, stopping most rebels from contesting as independents, something that the BJP could not do successfully.
The BJP’s ticket distribution bypassed many sitting councilors, with candidates close to former Chief Minister of Himachal Pradesh being given tickets, like current leader of opposition Jairam Thakur and JP Nadda, BJP National President. Both leaders come from an RSS background and have played a major role in sidelining non-RSS backed BJP politicians in the state of Himachal Pradesh. RSS or the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh is a Hindu nationalist volunteer paramilitary organisation and the ideological parent of the ruling BJP.
In fact, BJP members who were denied tickets fought as independent candidates in many wards, splitting the votes and significantly affecting BJP candidates. Additionally, in many wards CPI(M) cadres openly supported Congress candidates, many of whom won.
All in all, the local bodies election result in this western Himalayan state signals that people are not happy with how the BJP has been operating here. But the ruling party is still on firm ground. Despite humiliating losses in Himachal Pradesh and Karnataka, they retained their strongholds in Gujarat and Tripura, while their allies won recent elections in the northeastern states of Meghalaya and Nagaland. If this trajectory continues, the results of the 2024 Lok Sabha or parliamentary elections are going to be even more interesting.
The author is an assistant professor of political science at Government College, Shimla.