By-poll drubbing in HP, Hry forces BJP to look within

The setback in the recent by-elections in BJP-ruled Himachal Pradesh and Haryana has made the saffron party sit back and think. Apparently, party rebels in the hill state and farmers’ anger in Haryana have taken their toll on poll results. 

The Bharatiya Janata Party’s rout in all the four by-polls in Himachal Pradesh – three assembly and one parliamentary – held on October 30, results of which came on November 2 last, did not surprise many. The victory of the opposition Congress in all these – Mandi Lok Sabha and assembly seats of Jubbal-Kotkhai, Arki and Fatehpur – nonetheless gave it a fillip. For, Congress fought these by-polls without any heavyweight and sans adequate resources. Its stalwart and six-time chief minister Virbhadra Singh had passed away on July 8 last.

Hence, kudos from party top leaders including Rahul Gandhi who hailed the win.

Apart from skyrocketing prices of fuel, unemployment and anti-incumbency, a major factor against the ruling BJP in Himachal Pradesh was the bickering within.

In Mandi, former chief minister Virbhadra Singh’s widow Pratibha Singh, who had represented the seat in 2004 and 2013, polled about 3.69 lakh votes while BJP’s Brig Khushal Thakur (retd), a Kargil war hero, got 3.62 lakh. The victory margin of 7,490 was less than 12,626 votes that went to “none of the above’’ (NOTA) choice.

The BJP’s Ram Swaroop Sharma, whose death in February this year necessitated the by-poll, had won the seat by a margin of 3.98 lakh votes in the 2019 Lok Sabha elections. Talks are agog that a section of BJP voters who would not vote for Congress but were against chief minister Jai Ram Thakur went with NOTA.

The Mandi debacle came as a setback for chief minister Thakur as his own assembly constituency Seraj is part of this parliamentary seat, though, the BJP got the highest lead of 19,903 votes from Seraj in the by-poll. It is also being seen as an embarrassment for the party’s national president J P Nadda, who is a Rajya Sabha member from the state.

In Jubbal-Kotkhai (district Shimla), the BJP rebel Chetan Bragta who polled 23,662 votes and is son of former minister Narinder Bragta, contested as an independent on being denied the ticket and BJP nominee Neelam Seraik got only 2,644 votes), and lost her deposit. Congress’ Rohit Thakur, grandson of former chief minister Ram Lal Thakur won the seat with 29,955 votes.

In Fatehpur (district Kangra) the saffron party denied a ticket to party vice-president Kripal Parmar, who had lost the previous elections by just 1,200 votes. Congress’ Bhawani Pathania got 24,449 votes and defeated BJP’s Baldev Thakur who polled 18,660 votes. Thakur had rebelled against the party in the 2017 polls. An anguished Parmar and his supporters stayed away from the election campaign. Former BJP MP Rajan Sushant, who contested as an independent this time, also caused a major dent in the BJP’s prospects by polling nearly 13,000 votes.

In Arki (district Solan), Congress’ Sanjay Awasthy polled 30,798 and defeated BJP’s Rattan Pal by 3,219 votes. Here too, BJP failed to pacify a former two-time legislator Govind Ram Sharma whose supporters didn’t go with the BJP candidate.

The Impact

It was subsequent to these losses that Himachal Pradesh chief minister Jai Ram Thakur was categorically asked by the prime minister Narendra Modi at the recently held virtual meeting of the national executive to analyse reasons behind the by-polls debacle. Thakur was also asked to submit his report on the weaknesses at organisational as well as government level to the party national president JP Nadda.

Also, sources in the party said that Himachal Pradesh BJP could also see some changes in the organisation and a reshuffle in the Cabinet ahead of the 2022 assembly elections. It is said that two ministers Govind Thakur and Ram Lal Markanday, had also failed to manage lead from their respective assembly segments in the Mandi Lok Sabha by-poll.

Even though, the infighting in the saffron party was evident in the all the three assembly seats where by-polls were held, chief minister Jai Ram Thakur however maintained that he saw an anti-incumbency factor in assembly by-polls and sympathy factor for the Congress candidate in Mandi Lok Sabha by-poll.

INLD retains Haryana seat

Resentment against the BJP-led state government and the farmers’ anger against the farm laws seemed to have tilted the Ellenabad by-poll in favour of the Indian National Lok Dal (INLD) in Haryana.

This by-poll was necessitated after INLD’s lone MLA Abhay Chautala resigned in January this year in protest against the farm laws. He has retained the seat by defeating BJP’s Gobind Kanda by a margin of 6,708 votes.

Congress candidate Pawan Beniwal lost his security deposit in the by-poll. He had left INLD, joined BJP and finished second on BJP ticket in 2019. He was appointed as the chairman of the Haryana Seed Development Corporation, but he quit BJP too in April this year against the farm laws and joined the Congress.

Punjab, Uttarakhand pose challenge to BJP

The debacle is now also a matter of worry for the BJP, for, besides others, three northern states namely Himachal Pradesh, Punjab and Uttarakhand go to the polls next year.

The BJP in Punjab has announced to contest the assembly election without its traditional ally, the Shiromani Akali Dal (SAD), which has allied with Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP). The SAD parted ways with the BJP in protest against the farm laws despite the fact that it was part of the BJP-led National Democratic Alliance (NDA) when the bills were passed by Parliament.

The ruling Congress is facing a major crisis with the former chief minister Capt Amarinder Singh having quit the post and the party and launched his own political outfit “Punjab Lok Congress’’ subsequent to months of rumblings against him from several of his detractors within his government and the party.

Capt Amarinder’s bete noire and state Congress chief Navjot Singh Sidhu is also not reportedly getting along well with the chief minister Charanjit Singh Channi government. These political dynamics would apparently benefit the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP), the main opposition party there.

In Uttarakhand too, the faction-ridden BJP is said to be on shaky ground. It had to change three chief ministers this very year. Of the total 70 MLAs, BJP has 57 legislators who belong to different camps influenced by party stalwarts Ramesh Pokhriyal Nishank, Trivendra Singh Rawat, Tirath Singh Rawat and chief minister Pushkar Singh Dhami. Vijay Bahuguna, a former chief minister in a Congress government, is also now an influential BJP leader.

Talks are also rife that the Uttarakhand BJP might not field half of its MLAs in the upcoming assembly election because of their differences within the party.