New Delhi: Could anger over the Modi government’s controversial Agnipath scheme have contributed to Jairam Thakur government’s election loss in Himachal Pradesh? Yes, if a recent survey’s findings are to be believed.
A survey by Lokniti, CSDS – The Hindu suggests that in Himachal, the government’s scheme, which envisions recruiting soldiers between 17.5 and 21 years for a period of four years, could have contributed to the loss of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP).
Announced in June, the policy aims at paring down defence expenditure but drew widespread protests across India, including in Himachal.
The survey, conducted between 15 and 24 November, showed that every one in two voters opposed the scheme. Only 19 per cent of the respondents were completely in support of the policy while 14 per cent partially supported the scheme, it showed.
Of those who opposed the scheme, 55 per cent voted for the Congress. Among those partially supporting the scheme, 46 per cent each voted for the Congress and the BJP while the rest went with other parties or independent candidates.
However, BJP leaders ThePrint spoke to were sceptical about the extent of damage caused by the Agnipath policy.
It’s difficult to point out one issue that could have led to the loss, Himachal BJP president Suresh Kashyap told ThePrint.
“It was a close fight and we lost 5 per cent seats with a difference of fewer than 1,000 votes. The reasons for the defeat aren’t that strong, but we will still evaluate to see where we went wrong. Issues were different in different constituencies,” he said. “Even during the campaign, we did not observe any resentment from youth towards the scheme.”
But a political observer believes the damage caused by the Agnipath scheme can’t be ignored.
“Election outcome is not always (based) on a single issue, but (are a result of) multiple (factors),” Ramesh Chauhan, a professor of political science at Himachal Pradesh University, told ThePrint.
“In this election, there were 3-4 major issues that affected BJP’s vote share — the Old Pension Scheme, issues of farmers (apple growers) who were protesting, and the Agnipath scheme.”
In some districts of Himachal, every household has at least one member of the family in the armed forces, he said. “The uncertainty of the future after spending 4 years in the service, certainly affected young people, and it reflected in the polling outcome too.”
Also Read: In Himachal, BJP rebels impact party fate in 6 seats, but not instrumental in overall loss
Loss in Kangra, Hamirpur
A total of 2,844 voters spread across 110 polling stations in 28 randomly selected assembly constituencies were interviewed for the survey.
A region-wise analysis showed that of those who opposed Agnipath, close to 57 per cent were from western areas, which includes Kangra district, while 43 per cent belonged to eastern region.
Additionally, three of five youngsters — that is those between the ages of 18 and 25 — opposed the scheme, the survey says.
And, indeed, it shows in the election results, Chauhan said. In Kangra, a district considered the BJP’s bastion, the party won only four seats out of 15. In Hamirpur, home to former BJP chief minister Prem Kumar Dhumal and his son, Union Minister Anurag Thakur, the BJP lost all five assembly seats.
In another BJP stronghold Una, the party won only one of five seats.
Rakesh Jamwal, the BJP’s general secretary in Himachal who was elected from Sundernagar in Mandi district, believes it was the Old Pension Scheme and the internal rebellion within the BJP that really hurt the party.
“Not in one election campaign did I come across a youth who spoke about the Agnipath scheme,” Jamwal told ThePrint. “We lost because of rebel candidates. Twenty-one of our members rebelled against the party and stood as independent candidates, dividing our votes. If anything, it was the Old Pension Scheme, which is still an issue, that could have dented our votes.”
Former minister and BJP leader Anil Sharma agrees to the survey findings but adds the suspense over who will be the Congress chief minister also contributed to the party’s loss.
“There were other issues where there was more lobbying, such as the Old Pension Scheme and the Congress’ promise to give Rs 1,500 to women,” Sharma told ThePrint. “Also, the anticipation of who will become the CM from Congress also divided the votes. Wherever there were strong CM contenders in the Congress, more votes were given to that candidate in the constituency to ensure win.”
While the Congress hadn’t announced its chief ministerial candidate before the elections, it later chose Sukhvinder Singh Sukhu to lead the state government.
Congress leaders, however, believe that the anger against the Agnipath scheme is still visible among the electorate.
“Several of our young people get employed in the armed forces. They were having uncertainties regarding their future,” Ashish Butail, a Congress leader who was elected from Palampur, told ThePrint. “The youths were very angry, and there was an outburst against the BJP government.”
(Edited by Uttara Ramaswamy)
Also Read: ‘Nadda’s interventions, misplaced focus on PoK over OPS’ — many reasons for BJP’s Himachal loss