Facing a tough challenge

OPS may act as a game changer in Himachal Pradesh Assembly elections
 Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) supporters attend a public meeting addressed by Union Home Minister Amit Shah for the upcoming Himachal Pradesh Assembly elections, at Gurudwara Paonta Sahib, in Sirmaur on Thursday.
Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) supporters attend a public meeting addressed by Union Home Minister Amit Shah for the upcoming Himachal Pradesh Assembly elections, at Gurudwara Paonta Sahib, in Sirmaur on Thursday.ANI

The winter is harsh in Shimla and other parts of this hilly state but political temper is running high these days as Bhartiya Janata party is desperate to win assembly polls in Himachal Pradesh.

It will have significant ramifications for 2024 parliamentary elections. BJP has retaliated over Congress party’s aggressive bid to snatch power which has built up its election campaign on its major planks of ten guarantees to the people including restoration of Old Pension Scheme (OPS) for employees if it came to power.

BJP has tried to outsmart Congress by projecting eleven Guarantees which brings in Hindutva element on uniform civil code besides separately focussing on 33 percent reservation to women in jobs.

OPS versus NPS

The real battle is being fought on the major poll promise of Congress to restore Old Pension Scheme for over three lakh employees who have already rejected new pension scheme (NPS) imposed by National Democratic Alliance government (NDA) headed by late Atal Bihari Vajpayee in 2003. Congress governments in Rajasthan, Chhattisgarh, coalition in Jharkhand and AAP in Punjab have already restored the Old Pension Scheme (OPS), thereby ignoring the objections of the union government.

In the mid of election, the Himachal government was caught in Catch -22 situation vis-à-vis making the promise to accept Old Pension Scheme (OPS) demand of over 2 lakh employees who have got a potential to nullify the BJP’s dream project - “Mission Repeat”. This has been witnessed in Dec.1993 assembly elections when wrath of employees had heavily cost former chief minister, Shanta Kumar whose party faced humiliating defeat as Congress won 52 seats out of 68.

The predominant factor for the ouster of BJP pertained to the employees who avenged their crushing 27 day strike by EX CM by calling the Army and Punjab Armed Police besides invoking the NSA, thereby dismissing 350 employees.

Analysts opine that an identical anger prevails amongst the employees in Himachal though they have been peacefully agitating for the restoration of OPS which was abolished by the National Democratic Alliance (NDA) government headed by former prime minister, late Atal Bihari Vajpayee in Dec. 2003, and all union territories as well as state governments including Congress government headed  by late Virbhadra Singh were forced to implement the dictate of the center. Its substitute, the National Pension Scheme (NPS), was implemented with effect from (w.e.f) April 1, 2004. But BJP has questioned silence of Virbhadra government over OPS which could have protested over the centre’s decision.

Interestingly, one document has surfaced which says it was Dhumal government which initially signed a memorandum with centre in 10 April,1999 and it was implemented by NDA government in 2003.

Experts say that under OPS, an employee contributes ten percent in the form of GPF whereas it is matched by state government in equal proportion which is granted to him or her on the retirement. State Government gives half of the last pay drawn as pension throughout life. Contrary to it, NPS permits an employee to make contribution as per choice which is matched by the government and he is entitled to withdraw sixty percent of total amount on retirement after giving option to government to invest forty percent of the amount in bonds. It does not have any provision of life long pension.

Congress has built its campaign on OPS which has rattled BJP, and finding it difficult to get an escape route as chief minister Jai Ram Thakur had rejected their demand in State assembly and antagonised employees by challenging them to resign and contest polls to know their standing in the public.

BJP manifesto silent on OPS

Now BJP has not included this OPS in the manifesto, though party leaders have tried to assuage feelings of employees by saying an expert committee will be constituted to examine the issue, and  then final decision will be taken. Employees leaders are not amused as BJP had double engine Sarkar hence it could have done it during five year tenure of Jai Ram Thakur?

Experts are clear in their opinion that centre can not do it in isolation as it will have to pert other BJP ruled states also which is next to impossible.

BJP’s gamble

Analysts opine that on the campaign front, BJP’s game plan sounds risky as it has made Narender Modi, the prime minister, as face of the party in Himachal. He has addressed poll rallies at Bilaspur and Chamba where he described himself as ‘Beta’ of Himachal to emotionally woo the voters. Modi frequently gives reference of his decade old association with Himachal in early nineties when he was general secretary in charge of the party affairs. J P Nadda, national president of BJP belongs to Himachal hence he is personally supervising the poll management. Nadda’s prestige is also at stake and top leadership expects him to deliver in these polls. Amit Shah has addressed a big ‘Dhanyavad ‘Rally in Sirmaur district which was organised by the Hattee Community after the center exceeded their 54-year-old demand of according Schedule Tribe status which has got political overtone. More than 32 star campaigners have been deputed by BJP including J.P.Nadda, Amit Shah, Rajnath Singh, Yogi Adityanath, Smriti Rani, several ministers  besides well-oiled machinery of RSS, and huge resources, to influence the voters.

Over to Priyanka

Owing to ill -health of Sonia Gandhi, and Rahul Gandhi’s commitment to Bharat Jodo Yatra, it was the turn of AICC general secretary Priyanka Gandhi to take over the reigns of Himachal Congress as a poll strategist. Hence she acted as a big morale booster and motivator to the party cadres during the launch the election campaign at Thodo Ground in Solan. It was a big crowd which had come from different parts of the state but primarily from the districts of old Himachal including Solan, Shimla and Sirmaur which had been responsive to Priyanka’s speech who was successful in connecting with the audience specially women as she is a good orator and speaks refined Hindi.

Priyanka cleverly tried to emotionally relate herself with the people of hilly state when she shared the secret of choosing Mashobra in Shimla as her second home. Priyanka disclosed that her grandmother Mrs Indira Gandhi had a desire to settle in the beautiful Queen of hills hence she decided to fulfil her dream. Secondly, Nehru-Gandhi family had a special love for people of this state and did everything to protect its independent identity which had culminated when Mrs Gandhi addressed a huge crowd at historical Ridge Maidan on January 25,1971 after fulfilling their aspiration and ambition of attainment of statehood. She narrated that her grandmother addressed the people while it was snowing and none moved from their places till the speech concluded. She mentioned contributions made by Dr Y.S. Parmar, Thakur Ram Lal and Virbhadra Singh in shaping up Himachal but laid emphasis on the development model adopted by six time CM.

Two party system

The voters in Himachal may stick to two party system, hence chances of AAP may be bleak. While tracing the history of smaller parties since independence, it is abundantly clear that two party system took its roots since formation of Janata party in 1977, when Shanta Kumar became the chief minister. Shanta’s government lasted from 1977 to 1980 which followed official creation of BJP.

In this complex scenario, BJP has floated the idea of ‘Mission Repeat’ which seems a difficult task in Himachal. Entry of AAP was an interesting political event after its victory in neighboring state of Punjab. A cursory look at floating of third outfit since 1948 exhibits that ten parties came into existence during elections but vanished with the passage of time, which include Bhartiya Lan Sangh 1966, Janta Party 1977, Kisan Mazdoor Party 1953 (two seats), SC Federation 1952 (one seat), Lok Raj Party Himachal 1970 (put up 16 out of 68 and two got elected), Himachal Vikas Congress 1998, won five seats and merged with Congress in 2004, Himachal Kranti Party 1998, Loktantra Morcha 2003 led by Mohinder Singh, Himachal Swabhiman Party 2011 formed by Govindacharya, and Himachal Lokhit Party 2012 floated by Maheshwar Singh.

Presence of rebels

Ruling party faces a serious challenge of rebels who may spoil the game. It is an established principle that rebels act as spoilers and rebels have become major headache for Bhartiya Janata Party which has denied tickets to sitting eleven MLAs and changed the constituencies of a minister, former minister and a sitting MLA. BJP high command has tried to neutralise anti-incumbency factor of sitting MLAs who were rated low in retaining their seats which was based on internal surveys, RSS feedback and lacklustre performance coupled with disconnect with voters during their five year term. As per estimation of BJP high command, the new faces may be acceptable to the people hence young blood has been inducted.

Rebels not joining AAP

Interestingly, rebels of BJP and Congress did not show any curiosity to join AAP which may be due to its failure to emerge as credible force in these assembly polls. AAP could not make inroad in rural areas in Himachal unlike Punjab, hence rebels may find no help from this party to win their seats.

In final assessment, it is Modi’s ‘Charisma’ and BJP’s un-matching resources which have been put to test against the sky rocketing prices of essential commodities, exorbitant price of gas cylinders, woes of about 15 lakh unemployed youths, loss of jobs of thousands of workers due to closure of industrial units, pangs of GST on every item, a long standing demand of employees about OPS, scams in police recruitments.

The fate of all the parties will be decided by the electorate on Nov 12.

K S TOMAR is a political analyst and national Columnist based in Shimla

DISCLAIMER: The views and opinions expressed in this article are the personal opinions of the author.

The facts, analysis, assumptions and perspective appearing in the article do not reflect the views of GK.

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