Shimla, March 25
After demolishing the citadels of all major political parties in Punjab, the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) is now preparing to conquer the hills of Himachal Pradesh in the November Assembly polls.
The conditions, on the face of it, are not averse for the party that swept away the traditional political outfits of the Akalis, the BJP and the Congress in Punjab.
A strong anti-incumbency wave against the state ruling BJP — evident from the loss of three Assembly and one parliamentary seat in the October 2021 bypolls — and the absence of the veteran Chief Minister faces may work for the party that is already ruling in two states.
Both the conventional game changers — Virbhadra Singh of the Congress and Prem Kumar Dhumal of the BJP — are out of the scene. Singh is dead, while Dhumal is virtually in political exile after his defeat in the previous Assembly polls.
Political observers told IANS the pitch is more or less clear for AAP, which is yet to mark its presence even in state civic body polls, to sweep away the traditional political outfits in the hill state where both the Congress and the BJP ruled the state alternatively from 1985.
Himachal Pradesh was traditionally dominated by the Congress and saw its first non-Congress chief minister, Shanta Kumar, in 1977, when the Janata Party came to the helm.
“The state has been seeing a two-party system. A handful rebels from both the Congress and the BJP have been emerging from time to time, but after failing to mark their presence on the larger political landscape, they either merged with the previous party or joined the other party,” senior BJP minister Suresh Bhardwaj told IANS.
He said AAP is not active for the first time in the state. “It had contested the 2014 Lok Sabha elections. After Punjab win, they are hyperactive. But as far as Himachal is concerned, only disgruntled elements will join AAP.” As far as the BJP is concerned, Urban Development Minister Bhardwaj said, “We are focused on the agenda of development and welfare of all sections of society. As far as I know the Congress is worst hit by AAP’s activity. They fear exodus.” “It is a small state where the traditional parties have deep roots and the new one is yet to establish its credibility, leave aside its base,” he added.
Among the prominent opportunists, former Union minister Sukh Ram, who had to resign as the communications minister in the Narasimha Rao government in 1996 in the wake of a financial scandal, floated the Himachal Vikas Congress (HVC) in the 1998 Assembly polls and won five seats.
The HVC extended support to the BJP and joined the government. In the next Assembly polls, the HVC got one seat and finally merged with the Congress.
In 2017, Sukh Ram and his son Anil Sharma joined the BJP. Now the former is with the Congress, while the latter is with the BJP.
The list of politicians switching sides include Vijay Singh Mankotia, who quit the Congress ahead of the Assembly polls in 2007 and joined the Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP), winning a seat.
Mankotia, who faced defeat, later joined the Congress. Now, he is looking for a ‘credible’ third alternative.
So are a handful of BJP rebels, led by four-time MP Maheshwar Singh, who formed the Himachal Lokhit Party in 2012, and made a serious dent in the saffron party’s vote bank. The party then comprised former Assembly Speaker Radha Raman Shastri and two former ministers — Shyama Sharma and Mohinder Sofat.
Though the Himachal Lokhit Party won a seat, it proved to be a stumbling block for the BJP to retain the helm. Later, the Himachal Lokhit Party too split and Maheshwar Singh rejoined the BJP.
However, the splinter group opted for AAP in all four Lok Sabha seats in the state for the May 2014 polls.
The leaders, who joined the AAP, were keen to contest the 2017 Assembly elections, but AAP decided not to enter the fray. In that poll, the BJP won a majority with 44 seats in the 68-member Assembly.
After winning the majority in Punjab, AAP announced new office-bearers for its expansion in nine states and announced to contest the Assembly elections in Gujarat and Himachal Pradesh this year.
To formally launch its campaign and to mark its presence, AAP is launching its poll campaign on April 6 from Mandi town, the home turf of Chief Minister Jai Ram Thakur to challenge the BJP.
AAP’s national convener Arvind Kejriwal and Punjab Chief Minister Bhagwant Mann will be in Mandi, also the home turf of Sukh Ram, for a road-show to mobilise the cadre.
Political insiders told IANS that AAP is relying mainly on dissidents from both the BJP and the Congress. The prominent include Maheshwar Singh and legislators Anil Sharma and Ramesh Dhawala, all disgruntled for being ignored in the BJP.
In the past few weeks, AAP has roped in 30,000 people in its membership drive.
Delhi Health Minister Satyendra Jain, in-charge of the Himachal Pradesh election campaign with focus on health and education systems, has inducted 1,000-odd people from the constituency of Chief Minister Thakur, the first Chief Minister from Mandi, in AAP.
Ahead of the Assembly polls, AAP has announced to play a ‘semi-final’ to test the water by its maiden contest in the BJP-ruled Shimla Municipal Corporation, slated in May-end.
“Several leaders from both the BJP and the Congress are in touch with our leadership in Delhi,” AAP spokesman Gaurav Sharma said. IANS