High voter turnout in polls that saw lowly campaign

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l20171109117564The quaint, hilly state of Himachal Pradesh, also known as the ‘Land of the Gods’, witnessed a different kind of Assembly election this time. During the run up to the polls held on November 9, there were hardly any speeches by political leaders on the governance issues in the state. In fact, what was witnessed was the lowest level of electioneering and campaigning perhaps in the state’s history, with both major political parties — BJP and Congress for whom the polls were more of a litmus tests of their national prominence — stooping low in their verbal attacks on each other.

For instance, at an election rally in the state earlier this month, Prime Minister Narendra Modi said, “In Congress rule, five demons had thrived. These five demons are robbing the next generation of their future.” At another rally at Rehan in Kangra district, Modi told the people, “Aapke bete Kashmir mein desh ke liye jaan dete hain. Kashmir mein unhein pathar maare jate hain aur Congresss ke neta in patharbajon ka smarthan karte hain (Your sons join the Army and go to Kashmir where people throw stones at them. Congress leaders take the side of the stone pelters.)”

Countering the Prime Minister’s barbs, Congress vice-president Rahul Gandhi said at a rally in Rehan, “It is written in the Gita, ‘kaam karo, phal ki chinta mat karo’ (keep performing your duty and don’t worry about results), but Modi works on the principle of ‘phal sab kha jao aur kaam ki chinta mat karo’ (eat all the fruits and don’t worry about the work).”

Uttar Pradesh Chief Minister Yogi Adityanath said at a Mandi rally, “It is a sad tale of some politicians who turned ‘Manav to Danav’ (Men to Devil) for narrow selfish ends.”

These are just a few few examples of the low level of electioneering in the state by the country’s most prominent leaders. This has left the common man in Himachal Pradesh baffled. “These people (leaders) talk less about major governance issues in the state and are more keen on hurling abuses at their political enemies. Do they think we are fools?” asked Kumma Ram, a 72-year-old villager from Lamba Gaon in Kangra. “Even serious issues are raised by abusing the political opponents,” he added.

When Tehelka asked a large number of common people for their comments on such speeches, almost all of them said they generally don’t like the use of bitter words. Soma, an Independent member of local Nagar Parishad at Sujanpur in Hamirpur district, said that most of the people do not believe the leaders when they make allegations against each other‚ ‘Especially in the elections, leaders touch very low level. Most of their allegations are not true and people are aware of it. But still when these are repeatedly said the same people start discussing them.”

When Modi described Congress as a “laughing club” in Rehan rally, and later made personal attacks on the state’s Chief Minister Virbhadra Singh describing him as “zamanat par CM (chief minister out on bail)”, Singh attacked the BJP’s CM candidate Prem Kumar Dhumal on Twitter — ‘‘Dhumal Ji, your remarks on BJP’s supposed fight against corruption made me laugh. Last time I saw, your own sons were out on bail. Ur party’s main achievement is ‘ease of doing corruption’ @AmitShah & son’s miracle of 16,000 times lucre hike happens only in BJP rule. (sic)”

While many think that Modi’s outburst was the result of the pressure BJP is facing in the Gujarat Assembly polls, some others feel that this is the Prime Minister’s style. It is interesting that even in the remote villages of this hilly state, people started discussing the Gujarat elections. Despite having elections in their own state, people of Himachal were keen to know what will happen in Gujarat. Few feel that Congress will emerge stronger while others say that BJP will win, however, its margin may go down.

Social media too played a bigger role this time in the assembly elections in this state. Himachal is considered to have the highest literacy rate in the country after Kerala. Mobile phones have reached the far-off villages and people enjoy sharing things on social media platforms like facebook, twitter and Whatsapp given their enormous physical distances due to the hilly terrain.

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The first voter

first voterHundred-year-old Shyam Saran Negi, who was the first voter in Himachal Pradesh, caste his vote at Maanju polling booth in the tribal district of Kinnaur. The district administration had made special arrangements to facilitate him in casting his vote. Negi was escorted to the polling booth by an official vehicle which also dropped him back home.

He was also the first person to exercise his right to vote for Mandi-Mahasu parliamentary constituency (now Mandi) in the first ever elections in Independent India on October 25, 1951. Born in Kalpa of Kinnaur district in 1917, Negi is a retired teacher. He has not skipped even a single election since 1951. During the 2014 Lok Sabha elections, he was featured in Google’s ‘Pledge to Vote’ video.

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Rattan Negi, a 34-year-old in Reckong Peo in the tribal district of Kinnaur, told this correspondent that rallies of national leaders are held in plain areas only and they used to watch videos of Modi’s and Rahul’s rallies on the internet. “Political parties share them on Whatsapp also,’‘ he added. When asked what he thinks about the use of cheap words in speeches by leaders, he said that any sensible person will disapprove of it. “They (politicians) should maintain dignity,” he said.

Champa Negi, a teacher in a government school, expressed anguish over difficult areas being ignored by national leaders in holding election meetings. “Even Modi sahib says in his speeches that he knows the pain of a person living in the remotest village. But then why don’t they come to us in elections?” she asked.

Highest percentage of voting

The highest-ever voting percentage was witnessed in the history of Himachal Pradesh in this election. As compared to 73.51 percent voting in the previous assembly poll, this time 74.61 people came out to use their right of franchise. Ironically, the highest 81.05 percent polling was in Sirmaur, which has the lowest literacy rate in Himachal, whereas lowest percentage of 70.19 was recorded in Hamirpur which has the highest literacy rate in the hilly state. Hamirpur is also the home town of BJP chief ministerial candidate Prem Kumar Dhumal. The previous record of high percentage of voting in the state was recorded in 2003 when 74.51 percent of the voters had used their right of franchise.

Women came out in large numbers to vote; as many as 19 women are in the fray which include six from the BJP and three from the Congress.

There were record 337 candidates, which include Chief Minister Virbhadra Singh contesting from Arki in Solan district and former CM Dhumal, the BJP’s CM candidate, contesting from Sujanpur in Hamirpur district. Interestingly, both the chief ministerial candidates are contesting from new constituencies this time. Other prominent contestants are state BJP chief Satpal Satti from Una,  Sukhwinder Sukhu, state Congress chief, from Nadaun and senior CPM leader Rakesh Singha from Theog.

With counting of the votes to be held on December 18, people and political parties will have a long wait for the results. Neutral observers feel that despite high percentage of voting, there may be a keen contest between the two main political parties — BJP and Congress. While few feel that failure of the Central government in containing the high prices of daily commodities and implementation of GST will help Congress, others feel that people may support BJP since it is in power at the Centre also.

‘’I don’t consider it an unprecedented voting percentage. The awareness campaigns of various social organisations have made it possible that over 74 percent people came out for voting. Moreover, with strictness of the Election Commission bogus voting has almost ended. In my opinion, people will continue the previous trend of changing the government as I feel BJP has a slight edge in the elections,” said B D Sharma, a former Director of Information in Himachal Government.

There was a keen contest witnessed on seats like Shimla Rural, Theog and Nadaun. The chief minister’s son Vikramaditya Singh contested from Shimla Rural while CPM leader Rakesh Singha from Theog. State Congress Chief Sukhwinder Sukhu contested from Nadaun. This is also an interesting factor that Congress had declared Virbhadra Singh as its chief ministerial candidate too early while BJP announced the name of former chief minister Dhumal just eight days before the polling. The BJP realised that going into the elections without a leading face may harm its prospects. There was infighting in the state Congress party before the elections. However, when Virbhadra Singh was named the CM face by party vice-president Rahul Gandhi, opposing factions went silent.

In BJP, Union Minister J P Nadda was keen to be projected as the chief ministerial candidate and his supporters were looking very aggressive. However, it is said that the BJP high command felt that it will be difficult to win without Dhumal being projected as the chief ministerial candidate. Party chief Amit Shah announced his name on October 31. Leaving no stone unturned, the saffron party held several rallies of its star campaigners including Prime Minister Modi and party chief Shah, who addressed seven and six rallies, respectively. Congress vice-president Rahul Gandhi also held three rallies in the state.

Kangra district will play a major role as it alone has 15 seats out of a total 68 in the state Assembly. Virbhadra holds a reputation of a strong leader in the state, however, corruption charges against him may fade the chances of Congress.
For the first time, the Election Commission used VVPAT machines at 7,521 polling booths including 983 polling stations which were declared vulnerable and 399 others as critical. For the first time there were two all women-manned polling stations in each assembly constituency. Polling for all 68 constituencies was peaceful. Over 37,000 poll officials, 17,770 policemen, home-guards and 65 companies of the paramilitary were deployed in the state for election duty. There were a total of 50.25 lakh voters who went to cast their votes of which 24.57 lakh were women voters and 14 third gender electors.

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