Shimla: According to Himachal Pradesh Chief Minister Jairam Thakur, the poll-bound state has “no space” for a third political party, namely the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP), and whatever room it had for the Congress has also shrunk.
In an interview with ThePrint, Thakur said the BJP would change Himachal’s riwaz (tradition) of switching governments every assembly election and come to power again. But, he added, one tradition wasn’t going anywhere — the contest was still largely a bipolar one between the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and Congress, since the people would “never accept” a third party.
When ThePrint met Thakur at Shimla’s historic Peterhoff Hotel last week, he had just finished attending a meeting of the Himachal BJP’s core group to devise strategies for the assembly polls, scheduled to take place in November.
Dressed in his typical western-style outfit and waistcoat, he was busy greeting numerous functionaries at the venue but spoke at length about the contest ahead.
While he was deeply critical of rival political parties, he adopted a measured tone. He said the Congress has no future but spoke of the “tough time” it is going through. “Unka waqt kharab chal raha hai,” he said. He also said that though the AAP doesn’t stand a chance, it’s “good that they are trying”.
He also discussed the BJP’s poll preparations, the fallout of the party’s loss in the bypolls last year, his reported struggles with the state’s bureaucracy, and whether party veteran and former two-time CM Prem Kumar Dhumal might make a comeback.
‘AAP has neither a leader nor cadres’
Earlier this week, the AAP became the first party in Himachal to announce a list of candidates for the polls. It is also running a high-octane campaign (Punjab CM Bhagwant Mann visited the state thrice) and has announced numerous freebies.
But Thakur said he was not impressed, pointing to numerous defections in the party earlier this year that had forced it to dissolve its former working committee in April before regrouping.
“They are trying to get a foothold in the state, but before they even arrived, their leadership split and joined other parties. They have neither a leader nor cadres in the state. It’s good that they are trying, and they can keep trying, but Himachal has never accepted a third party in its history,” he said. “There is no space for a third party and the people don’t take it seriously”.
‘Congress is giving guarantees, but there’s no guarantee for them’
A few weeks ago, Himachal Congress chief Pratibha Virbhadra Singh announced 10 “guarantees” if voted into government, including 300 units of free electricity, monthly financial assistance of Rs 1,500 for women, creating five lakh jobs, and restoring the old pension scheme for government employees.
When asked about this, Thakur scoffed: “Those who are making guarantees have no guarantees for themselves. Even in the states where they are in power, Rajasthan and Chhattisgarh, are they giving 300 units of free electricity and Rs 1,500 to women? People don’t trust these empty promises. We have implemented what we committed to in our manifestos.”
He added that the Congress is currently undergoing the toughest time in its history.
“They are organising programmes for Bharat Jodo (unite India), but their leaders are going for Congress chhodo (abandon Congress),” he quipped, citing the examples of eight Congress MLAs joining the BJP in Goa and the exit of veteran Congressman Ghulam Nabi Azad from the party. He pointed out that last month in Himachal, two MLAs, including the state working president Pawan Kajal, had joined the BJP.
“The Congress has no future in the country and in Himachal, too, they will be rejected,” he said.
What is also going to work against the Congress, he added, was the absence from its campaign of party stalwart and former CM Virbhadra Singh, who died last year.
“There is no leadership in the Congress. The leadership is not united in Himachal and they have no face left… Virbhadra Singh was their face. Now, they have reached such a state in Himachal that they don’t have a face to fight elections. But the BJP has a strong leadership,” he said.
‘We will change tradition’
Himachal Pradesh has ping-ponged between the BJP and Congress governments every five years since 1990, but Thakur believes that era is over.
“A new riwaz (tradition) has evolved under Prime Minister Modi’s leadership… of people rewarding governments with a renewed mandate. In Uttarakhand, Pushkar Singh Dhami returned for another term. Yogiji [Yogi Adityanath] broke the jinx of changing governments in Uttar Pradesh. Sawantji [Pramod Sawant] repeated the government in Goa. From Haryana to Manipur, the trend has changed. And it will change in Himachal too this time,” he said.
When asked about the BJP’s core message to Himachal’s electorate in this year’s campaign, Thakur said: “We want to convey the message that this government is of the poor and for the poor. A few powerful people thought that only they had the right to rule in Himachal, but the voters proved them wrong.”
‘There’s a distinction between freebies and empowerment’
Speaking about the BJP’s campaign in the state, Thakur elaborated at length about “welfare schemes” announced by the party, including 125 units of free electricity, but insisted they were distinct from the “revadi” (freebies) promised by other parties.
“The Congress and AAP announcements are just revadi, but the BJP is empowering women and poor sections of society by giving them some benefits. And it’s not free. We have announced halved bus fares for women, but some fees are still charged by the transport department,” he said.
“As for electricity, we are supplying it to Haryana, Delhi, and Punjab. To help the poor and the middle-class we have announced some relaxation, but it is not for those categories that can afford to pay. The Congress and AAP have announced free electricity to everyone… that’s the distinction between revadi and empowerment,” he added.
Thakur also said the BJP’s welfare announcements were more credible than those of other parties since people “trust the word of Prime Minister Narendra Modi” and his track record.
“The Prime Minister has a strong relationship with Himachal. He approved the [proposal to grant] Scheduled Tribe status to the Hatti community, which they had demanded from 1967,” he said.
He also claimed that the Himachal BJP government was giving pensions to 7.5 lakh people at a cost of Rs 1,300 crore, while the Congress was spending only Rs 400 crore when they were last in power.
“We have delivered the Ujjwala scheme [to provide clean cooking fuel] to every woman. We are giving Rs 3,000 to 20,000 under the Sahara scheme for destitute people, there is the Himcare scheme (for healthcare)… Baddi has become a pharma hub [due to Union government packages], an All India Institute of Medical Sciences (AIIMS) is ready for inauguration. The Congress should tell people what they have done for Himachal,” Thakur said.
When asked if he felt his government might have underperformed in any area, the CM said that there had not been as much focus on tourism as he would have liked but hopes to remedy that in his next tenure.
“Due to Covid we could not work enough on tourism. But we have decided that we need to develop more destinations for tourism other than the already established ones, since it has the most potential for job creation,” he said.
To this end, he added, improving connectivity is also important. “If we want to create new destinations, we need to have a large airport, which we are developing in Mandi.”
‘Cadre morale has increased, people responding’
In November last year, the Himachal BJP got a rude shock when it lost the Fatehpur, Arki, and Jubbal-Kotkhai assembly bypolls, as well as the Mandi Lok Sabha seat.
When asked about this, Thakur attributed the Congress’ win to a “sympathy wave” due to Virbhadra Singh’s death and the entrance of his wife Pratibha in the poll fray. People were paying “shraddhanjali” (tribute) to Virbhadra Singh, but now, according to him, there is no such sympathy left.
However, he acknowledged the defeat “awakened” them and drove party leaders to work harder and there seems to be a positive response.
“During Covid, we have worked tirelessly for people. Now, during election time, people don’t show their mood to politicians, but we are sensing that most are receiving our campaign with enthusiasm and it gives us confidence,” he said.
The pressure on Thakur, of course, is high — and more so since BJP president J.P. Nadda is from Himachal Pradesh, and was formerly state chief, and therefore particularly invested in the party’s victory.
“I have performed as per the expectations of the party high command to make the BJP government in the state. This time, too, the party has given me the responsibility to head the state. There was one fault in our effort in the past that we could not make successive governments in state. This time, we will rectify that fault also,” he said.
On speculation that former CM Prem Kumar Dhumal, who was seen as a chief ministerial candidate in 2017 but was defeated from his seat Sujanpur, wants to contest assembly elections this time, Thakur was circumspect.
“Dhumalji is senior leader of the party. He has always played an important role and we take guidance from him. The party high command will take a decision on the matter [of Dhumal fighting elections]… whatever that decision might be, all leaders will accept it,” he said.
On bureaucratic issues
It is often rumoured in Himachal Pradesh that Thakur is unable to adequately manage the state bureaucracy. Earlier this month, for instance, a former additional chief secretary, who was superseded for the top post in the administration, wrote to the governor about the matter. There was also a controversy over the post of chairperson of the Himachal Pradesh Public Service Commission (HPPSC) last month.
When asked about the perception that he has difficulties reining in the bureaucracy, Thakur said: “Many times, the bureaucratic tendency is to delay decisions, make some excuse to implement decisions…. We have seen it many times. But my question is different. There is a common perception that the bureaucracy doesn’t listen to the CM, but is it possible to run the government by bulldozing bureaucrats? Abusing bureaucracy? This is not the right approach. We have worked as a team and also punished bureaucrats who did not work with honesty,” he said.
Thakur added it was the Congress that spread the idea that he, and even Dhumal before him, struggled with the bureaucracy while Virbhadra Singh was a strong CM who could keep civil servants in check. “I want to ask Congress people that if [Virbhadra] was so powerful, then why was he not able to repeat the Congress government in the state?”
(Edited by Asavari Singh)