Shimla: A three-day working committee meeting of the BJP’s Himachal Pradesh unit, held between 24 and 26 November to introspect into the reasons for the party’s defeat in last month’s bypolls in the state, has thrown up some interesting observations.
Among the reasons suggested for the loss were discontent among party workers (primarily due to the selection of the wrong candidates), infighting among the workers, and significant gap between the party and the Jai Ram Thakur-led government, as a result of which the public were not made aware of the work done by the government, sources in the party have told ThePrint.
Now, in an exclusive interview with ThePrint, Chief Minister Thakur has accepted the overall responsibility for the defeat as the head of the government, but also claimed that sympathy for former chief minister and Congress leader, Virbhadra Singh, who passed away in July this year, worked in favour of the rival party.
Bypolls for three assembly seats — Jubbal Kotkhai, Fatehpur and Arki — and one Lok Sabha seat — Mandi — were held on 30 October. The BJP didn’t win any of them.
“Several reasons for this defeat have come to the fore. The party is assessing all of them. Being the chief minister of the state, I myself accept the overall responsibility for this defeat,” said Thakur.
While Thakur has drawn flak from many quarters since the defeat, a word of support for is said to have come from BJP national president J.P. Nadda, who hails from the state. Sources said Nadda praised the Himachal CM’s work on the last day of the working committee meeting.
Party was ‘overconfident, now eyes open’
While CM Thakur admitted that “overconfidence” was one of the reasons for the BJP’s defeat, he also sounded a word of caution for the Congress and said the opposition party should remember that it won’t always have sympathy to fall back on.
“The workers felt that we will win quite comfortably because we are in power. But Congress benefited due to the death of Virbhadra Singh, and sympathy for him ensured their victory,” he claimed.
Coming just about a year before the upcoming 2022 assembly elections in the state, the bypoll defeat is being perceived by many within the party as a sign of the growing discontent among the public against the government. The CM, however, dismissed such fears, and said instead that the bypoll defeats had worked as an “eye-opener” for the BJP ahead of the assembly elections, which are to be held towards the end of 2022.
“We got a chance to become alert while there is still time,” said Thakur. “The assembly elections are still a year away and we will work towards identifying whatever shortcomings are there, whether at the level of the organisation or the government. After this we will contest the elections with full energy by rectifying (the shortcomings).”
Insisting that the government will actively work on achieving all targets it set at the beginning of its term, Thakur said in the coming days, the state BJP will work to encourage party workers who have been demoralised by the bypolls defeat and fight the coming elections “with full passion and zeal”.
Thakur also referred to some party members who weakened its prospects from within in the bypolls, and stressed that such behaviour would not be tolerated in future.
Vote for sympathy
The bypolls on all four seats had been necessitated by the deaths of the incumbents, rather than resignations, so Thakur said the sympathy factor had played a big part.
“In Mandi (whose sitting MP, BJP’s Ram Swaroop Sharma, allegedly died by suicide), Virbhadra Singh’s wife Pratibha Singh was contesting the election. Virbhadra Singh was a big leader of the state, who had been a five-time MP and a six-time CM. His wife was also a two-term MP. In all parts of his (erstwhile) princely state, like Rampur, Kinnaur, Lahaul-Spiti, people voted for the Congress out of sympathy. We lost Mandi by a wafer thin margin of just 1 per cent of votes,” said Thakur.
“In Fatehpur, the incumbent Congress MLA Sujan Singh Pathania died in February and his son was contesting the election. Virbhadra Singh himself was an MLA from Arki. These seats were with the Congress party already. The sympathy factor worked in Jubbal-Kotkhai too. That seat had been with us for the last two terms only. Last time too, Narinder Bragta had won this seat by a very slim margin,” he said.
The BJP had denied a ticket to Bragta’s son Chetan in Jubbal-Kotkhai, despite the possibility of the younger leader benefitting from sympathy following his father’s demise in June. Chetan subsequently contested the election as an independent candidate, which is said to have led to a division of votes and a victory for the Congress candidate Rohit Thakur. According to sources, the BJP’s panna pramukh (in-charge of voter lists) and other party members had worked for Chetan, instead of the BJP candidate Neelam Seraik.
Explaining the decision to not give a ticket to Chetan Bragta, CM Thakur said: “The central high command has decided to not allocate tickets in the name of dynasty/family politics. It was done not only in the context of Himachal, but this was a message for the entire nation, that we respect our common workers and engaging in family politics will not be accepted at the national level. Because these by-election results did not affect the survival of our government, they took such a decision to discourage dynasty politics. I will not comment on the decision taken by the high command. But this was an election of special circumstances and here they (the opposition) received full advantage of the sympathy factor.”
Warning the Congress that it should not hope for another victory like this (especially in the upcoming assembly elections) based on “sympathy”, Thakur said, “We respect the mandate and will work towards sorting out our shortcomings. But the way Congress is being jubilant, it should understand that the people vote only once on the basis of sympathy. They do not repeat it time and again. They should not live under any misconception. The sympathy factor will not work in the general elections because in this election Congress had asked for votes in the name of paying tribute to their deceased leaders.”
‘Sabotage, indiscipline won’t be tolerated’
Thakur also had a word of warning for BJP members who had allegedly sabotaged the party’s prospects in the bypolls. “There is no place or scope for those who work to defeat the party, while still being part of the party. This will not be tolerated anymore. We have also decided that indiscipline will not be tolerated at any cost. If someone is thinking that today they can oppose us and tomorrow they can find their place with us again, then it won’t happen,” said Thakur.
Answering a question on whether the bypoll defeat has exposed the shortcomings of the BJP organisation, the chief minister said “I won’t like to comment on it, but sometimes these kind of circumstances develop on their own”.
“Our party is based on cadre, and we are the largest party of the world, not only in India. The party is built through the sweat of the common workers. Ordinary party workers have gone on to become MPs, MLAs, chief ministers and Union ministers. This is not a family-based party. So the central leadership has taken the right steps to check family politics inside the party,” he said.
Thakur also denied that the results were a reflection of a disconnect between the government and the party. ”Wherever I went, people used to say that the government has performed exceptionally well. There was no lag in development works,” said Thakur. “Our government’s performance should not be judged only on bypoll results. Earlier too, big leaders have lost bypolls. These bypolls were held under special circumstances (death of leaders), but in the past we have won consecutive elections.”
Roadmap for 5th year
Talking optimistically about the government’s and the state BJP’s roadmap for the future, Jai Ram Thakur said the focus has to be on the party cadre.
“Now the election year is set to begin. Four years of our regime will be completed on 27 December and we are entering into a new year. We have to focus on the party cadres. They are bit demoralised after these defeats. They are feeling a bit restless. They are also realising that this should not have happened. But we have been alerted. Our main priority is to make them more alert and active by encouraging them,” the CM said.
“As part of our governance, we will achieve all the targets in a time-bound manner. Whatever projects are pending are to be completed within a targeted timeframe of five-six months. If the officers do not comply with it, then tough action will be taken against them too,” he warned.
Talking about the government’s Vision Document and whether the promises it made at the beginning of its tenure had been achieved, Thakur said, “The government has fulfilled most of the promises. In fact, we have achieved way beyond it. Last time we had presented a Vision Document instead of a manifesto and we have worked hard to work beyond this too.”
The CM — a cricket enthusiast known for his batting skills — answered ThePrint’s question on his strategy for the upcoming assembly elections by using a cricketing analogy. “There is no question of playing on the defensive. The government and the party will play on the front foot to keep the BJP in power,” he said.
Himachal has a history of alternating Congress and BJP governments in successive elections, but Thakur is confident his party will break the pattern.
”We have always contested elections with complete seriousness. This time too we will fight with full passion and zeal. We have never taken any election lightly. We won assembly elections in 2017, won again in 2019 Lok Sabha elections by bagging all four seats with maximum votes. We also won two by-elections besides winning Panchayat and municipal elections,” he said.
(Edited by Poulomi Banerjee)