Himachal Pradesh CM Sukhwinder Singh Sukhu Rahul Priyanka Gandhi
Himachal Pradesh CM Sukhwinder Singh Sukhu felicitates Congress leader Rahul Gandhi with a shawl during his oath-taking ceremony, as party General Secretary Priyanka Gandhi Vadra looks on, in Shimla on Sunday, Dec 11, 2022. Image Credit: ANI

In my last column based only on exit polls, I had been bold enough to depart from them a bit.

With the Congress winning convincingly in Himachal Pradesh (HP), the Aam Aadmi Party defeating the incumbent Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) in the Municipal Corporation of Delhi’s elections, and, of course, the BJP’s massive and record-breaking victory for a 7th consecutive term in Gujarat, I was proven right.

My conclusion had been, “All told, the results, if the exit polls are anything to go by, show all three players, the BJP, Congress, and AAP doing well in their own designated territories.” This was a somewhat unusual deduction to make to because every single opinion poll and, barring one, every single exit poll had predicted a BJP win in HP.

The only exception was the Aaj Tak-Axis My India exit poll which forecast between 24-34 seats for the BJP and between 30-40 for the Congress. The actual results were much more in favour of the Congress than even the counting trends indicated, with a resounding 40 to 25 win over the BJP.

Congress workers taking selfies with FM Nirmala Sitharaman Himachal Pradesh
Congress workers taking selfies with FM Nirmala Sitharaman who was campaigning for BJP in Himachal Pradesh. Image Credit: Twitter

I was a little more sceptical of the exit polls than most media anchors and commentators because I have noticed how off the mark, or downright wrong, they have been in the past. Also, because I thought I understood HP politics a bit, having spent three years in its capital, Shimla, as the Director, Indian Institute of Advanced Study.

I knew that the Congress organisation was strong in the state. They had the legacy and good will earned by “Raja Saheb,” the late Virbhadra Singh, who had served as the Chief Minister of the state for an incredible six terms totalling some twenty-one years. After his demise on July 8, 2021, his widow, Pratibha Singh, had led the Congress comeback campaign in the state.

In HP politics, as in the neighbouring Uttarakhand, most parties are not re-elected after serving a five-year term. Anti-incumbency is a strong factor. Moreover, the three-cornered internal factionalism and fighting in the BJP ranks itself was a dead giveaway that their tally would not be as good as projected.

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Jairam Thakur was buffeted and weakened by his own party’s factionalism and in-fighting. While he lost, one of alleged the rival factions, led by Anurag Thakur, also couldn’t hold onto to their seats in Hamirpur. The party president, J P Nadda, also hails from HP, despite which the BJP lost. This shows that the BJP, clearly, has some serious introspection to do in the days ahead.

The newly sworn Chief Minister, fifty-eight year old Sukhvinder Singh Sukhu, however, is considered to be from the camp opposed to Virbhadra Singh. He is a commoner, from a much more humble background, but is a four time winner in the assembly elections.

Sukhu’s father was bus driver in the state run Himachal Road Transport Corporation (HRTC). Sukhu himself ran a milk booth before his career in politics took off. As a student, he was an office bearer of the National Students’ Union of India (NSUI), a Congress-affiliated student union. After his MA and law degree, Sukhu also served as a councillor in the Shimla Municipal Corporation.

His Deputy, Mukesh Agnihotri, a couple of years his elder, also a four-time state legislator, has been the leader of the opposition during BJP CM Jairam Thakur’s tenure. Both leaders are thus experienced political players in the hilly state. What is more, they enjoy the blessings of the Gandhi family.

Decision of 'high command'

Both Rahul Gandhi, who wore a white t-shirt to the ceremony at the history Shimla ridge on Sunday and his sister, who owns a home in Himachal Pradesh, were present at the swearing-in. Pratibha Singh, although a contender, too chimed in her support saying, “We accept the decision of the high command.” Sukhu’s cabinet expansion, soon to be announced, is expected to be a balancing act, with representation to various constituencies and communities.

The lessons from HP are threefold. “Congress mukt Bharat” or Congress-free India does not seem likely in the near future notwithstanding the party’s own apparent death-wish. Despite Rahul Gandhi’s keeping himself busy knitting India far away and the party itself in a disarray in most parts of the country, the Congress rank and file came through in HP. They could easily have performed better in Gujarat too had they not rolled over and pretended to be near-dead in that state.

With its high command still quite high and mighty but not really in command and their central leadership not really capable of much leadership, their best bet seems to go regional. Their next opportunity is Karnataka in 2023, where, once again, the local organization is reasonably strong.

With better planning and effort, not to speak of support from the sizeable Muslim and lower caste vote bank, they might do better than expected. AAP, the usual beneficiary of the Congress’s unravelling as in Punjab, was nowhere in the picture in HP or even Gujarat. This shows that that despite all the freebies that they promise, they have a long way to go before they can become India’s main opposition party.

When it comes to the BJP, they can draw comfort from the fact that the Congress won by a narrow margin, polling less than 1% more votes than them. So, it could have gone either way. BJP’s will to power is as strong as ever and so is their election war machine.

But in states such as HP, where the Hindutva card is not all that effective, what matters much more is party unity and support for the local leadership.

The Modi mantra, although still potent, needs a strong local leadership. In order to continue its dream run, the party must be willing, therefore, to invest much more in state and local leaders.