Narendra Modi with party senior leader & MP Shanta Kumar with other leaders
Narendra Modi with party senior leader & MP Shanta Kumar with other leaders during a BJP Parivartan Rally at Rait, Dharamsala. Photo by Shyam Sharma/Hindustan Times via Getty Images
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From targeting Virbhadra Singh on corruption charges to presenting its own united front, the BJP got its strategy right in Himachal Pradesh.

The BJP dominated the Himachal Pradesh assembly polls, barring the embarrassment of seeing its chief ministerial candidate lose the election from Sujanpur.

So what really worked for the BJP apart from the standard explanation of anti-incumbency in the Congress-ruled state?

Corruption

To begin with, the BJP focused its campaign on the charges of corruption against six-time Chief Minister Virbhadra Singh. The fact that he was facing a CBI case and an Enforcement Directorate inquiry into assets allegedly disproportionate to his known sources of income was used to the hilt by the BJP.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi, who addressed seven rallies in the state in the run-up to the polls, repeatedly referred to Virbhadra as a “CM on bail”.

Leadership failure

The Congress defeat in the state also has a lot to do with Virbhadra’s failing leadership due to old age and ill health. Singh, now 83 years old, was being seen as someone too old to work and perform, and live up to the growing aspirations of the people of this small state.

However, despite his age, Virbhadra ran a spirited campaign, which didn’t do much to lift electoral prospects of his party. Instead, he had to be content with the fact that there was no help from the party’s central leadership. Apart from an introductory rally a month before polling day, Rahul Gandhi (then party vice-president) came to campaign in Himachal only for a day, addressing three rallies.

His last-minute effort to create a frenzy among the electorate over the twin issues of demonetisation and implementation of the Goods and Services Tax (GST) obviously had no impact. The Congress was simply unable to channelise the resentment over these issues, and convert them into votes.

Internal squabbling

Bitter internal squabbling between Virbhadra and state Congress chief Sukhvinder Singh Sukhu has also contributed to the party’s debacle in the state. The matter was brought to the notice of the central leadership several times, with both leaders making personal visits to Delhi. But the high command’s lethargy ensured that differences between the two were not sorted out. The bickering came out in the open several times over, with Sukhu refusing to work with the CM and vice versa, which only helped the BJP.

BJP’s united front

On the other hand, several factors favoured the BJP this time. Unlike in 2012, when a rebel BJP group had created the Himachal Lokhit Party and managed to get over 2.4 per cent of the votes, the BJP put up a united front this time.

The BJP also managed to bring to itself a 6 per cent vote share out of the 12 per cent which had gone to independents the last time, and almost another 1 per cent from the BSP’s kitty. The party managed to sell the idea that a state stands to gain benefits from the BJP being in power at the Centre if it also forms the government in the state.

The Kangra factor

The BJP’s biggest victories have come from Kangra district, where, in 2012, the Congress had won 10 of the 15 seats. This time, the BJP is all set to win 10 seats here.

It focused a lot of attention on the district, wooing ex-servicemen through the implementation of ‘One Rank, One Pension’.

Despite some initial misgivings, the BJP also co-opted the active services of its stalwart leader Shanta Kumar, who has a major hold in Kangra, well ahead of the polls.

The Kotkhai tragedy

BJP’s relentless and unforgiving campaign against the government for the non-deliverance of justice following the gang rape and murder of a school girl in Kotkhai also seems to have helped.

While the crime remains unsolved, the Congress lost a lot of ground politically in its core areas in the upper Shimla belt.

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