New Delhi: A wave of sympathy for the late former chief minister Virbhadra Singh was a key reason for the BJP’s defeat in the 30 October bypoll for the Mandi Lok Sabha constituency, according to Himachal Pradesh BJP president Suresh Kashyap. Congress leader Virbhadra Singh, who died on 8 July, was a six-term chief minister of the state, and it was his widow, Pratibha Singh, who won the seat.
The party also suffered defeats in three state assembly segments — Arki, Fatehpur and Jubbal-Kotkhai — in the byelections. All four bypolls were held in the wake of the incumbent legislators’ death. While Mandi was won by the BJP in 2019, Arki and Fatehpur were with the Congress earlier as well. Jubbal-Kotkhai was won by the BJP in the 2017 assembly polls.
Inflation and the party leadership’s decision to deny a ticket to Chetan Bragta, son of the late BJP leader Narinder Bragta, also played a role in the losses, said Kashyap. Bragta contested from the Jubbal-Kotkhai seat as an independent candidate and won 41 per cent of the vote.
In light of the bypoll results, there is apprehension among party leaders.
Himachal Pradesh was the only BJP-ruled state where the party failed to win a single seat in these byelections. Moreover, in the Jubbal-Kotkhai constituency, the party’s official candidate, Neelam Saraik, received just 4 per cent of the votes, while Bragta came second behind the victorious Congress candidate.
In Fatehpur, the party’s vote share dropped to 32 per cent from a high of 49 per cent in 2017. In Mandi, its vote share declined to 48 per cent from 69.7 per cent in the 2019 Lok Sabha election.
The high command has now instructed the party’s mandal adhyaksh (presidents) in all three assembly segments and the Mandi Lok Sabha constituency to conduct a thorough review of the defeats.
A detailed review will also be held during a meeting of the Himachal Pradesh BJP’s core group and the state working committee, scheduled for 24 November.
In an exclusive interview with ThePrint, Kashyap said, “The results of these byelections have given us a chance to mend our ways, and this is the best opportunity for us to rectify our mistakes before the assembly elections. Now we have become more conscious.
“This is the right time to move forward. The Congress’ sympathy card will not work for it forever. Nevertheless, we are not taking this (the reversals) lightly, and we will review all the reasons behind it during the meeting of the working committee and the core group.”
‘Rebel candidate, close contest’
Discussing the denial of ticket to Bragta, Kashyap said, “The state unit had recommended allocating a ticket to Bragta from Jubbal-Kotkhai, but the party central command said we couldn’t give tickets to family members.”
Due to this, he added, “there was complete sympathy for him in that constituency as his father, who was also a minister in the state government, had passed away just a few weeks back”.
“He contested as a rebel candidate, and even then, the entire party structure in that constituency supported him. How this happened will be revealed at the review meeting. A message had gone out that he had not been treated properly,” he said.
Speaking about the other seats, Kashyap continued, “Bhawani Singh Pathania’s (the victorious Congress candidate in Fatehpur) father, Sujan Singh Pathania, won from the Fatehpur seat for many years. Virbhadra Singh himself was an MLA from Arki. We lost the Mandi Lok Sabha seat by a wafer-thin margin of just 1 per cent. A sympathy factor was at work there for Pratibha Singh, wife of Virbhadra Singh. Nevertheless, we are investigating how we trailed in eight-nine assembly segments within the Mandi constituency.”
‘Internal dissent, reviewing shortcomings’
Responding to a question on whether large-scale infighting and internal sabotage within the party could have contributed to the defeat, with party workers displeased by candidate selections, Kashyap said “several small factors came together for this loss”.
“In some places, the cadre did not fight wholeheartedly, and elsewhere, high inflation became an issue. Everyone worked hard on their parts. Now, whatever shortcomings there were, this loss will help us roll out some course correction.”
“We have asked the local units to gather all the relevant facts after getting in touch with the candidates and all the people who were actively involved in election work. After this, we will discuss the reasons for the defeat in detail. First, the core group will meet on 24 November, followed by a working committee meeting where all members will sit together to draw a road map for the future,” he added.
Kashyap said there is still some time until the assembly elections, and “we will contest the polls with complete preparedness”.
‘No chance of upsets’
For some time, Himachal Pradesh has followed a trend of alternating between BJP and Congress governments, and the byelections do seem to indicate a Congress resurgence.
The Congress won 21 of the state’s 68 seats in 2017, while the BJP came to office with a total of 44.
Kashyap said “everybody knows the actual status of the Congress, and there’s no need for it to be overly jubilant” about the bypolls.
“The sympathy card doesn’t work all the time — it can be encashed only once. Our government’s track record has been excellent. We have done stupendous work during the pandemic. I do not foresee any possibility for upsets. Had the wind been blowing in their favour, they would have won Mandi with a bigger margin, but it was just 1 per cent.”
In Mandi, a grim fact for the BJP is that there were two state ministers in charge of the election, yet the party trailed in both their allocated areas. Asked about this, Kashyap said, “Out of the 17 assembly segments (that make up the Mandi Lok Sabha seat), we were ahead in eight and the Congress led in the other nine. The factors affecting each assembly segment and why we trailed in some will be revealed during the review. This is a matter for thorough assessment.”
On the problem of anti-incumbency and how the party plans to deal with it, Kashyap said, “There is some resentment in some areas. Wherever there is anti-incumbency, the government will identify it and make it a priority to deal with it. People have lost their jobs due to the pandemic. As tourism makes up a large portion of our economy, it will be a high priority for our government to bring it back on track and create more employment opportunities for the masses.”
(Edited by Rohan Manoj)