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BJP turns to ‘Mission Shimla’ before Himachal polls, with pay hikes & thank you notes from CM

Fighting anti-incumbency, Himachal CM Jai Ram Thakur is making numerous moves to 'lower the burden' on voters. Central BJP leadership too is keeping a close eye.

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New Delhi: With four state election victories under its belt this year, the BJP is shifting its focus to Gujarat and Himachal Pradesh, which go to polls in the coming winter. Both are BJP-ruled states, but hilly Himachal is where the party is on rather more precarious footing.

A major sign of trouble in Himachal was the bypoll result in November last year, where the BJP lost in the Mandi Lok Sabha seat as well as three Assembly constituencies. This was a hit to the prestige of not only Chief Minister Jai Ram Thakur but also BJP president J.P. Nadda, whose home state is Himachal.

Since then, the party, under the leadership of Thakur has been on a mission to beat anti-incumbency, through measures like passing a law to give property rights to slum dwellers, reducing power tariffs for farmers and domestic users, and a hike in pay for government employees.

Earlier this week, BJP national vice-president Saudan Singh also headed to Himachal to get state leaders and workers geared up for the assembly polls, which are likely to take place in November.

The first challenge, though, is the election to the Shimla Municipal Corporation, which is expected to take place in May or June. It’s the first electoral test since the bypolls and the BJP is hoping to repeat its success of 2017, where it undid 26 years of Congress domination in the civic body.

Also Read: All-out war in Himachal BJP after bypoll defeats, leaders also blame Nadda & high command

‘Mission Shimla’

In the 2017 elections to the Shimla Municipal Corporation, the BJP enjoyed its best showing in 31 years of the civic body’s polls, winning 17 out of 34 seats, with the Congress bagging 12.

This time, the seats have been increased from 34 to 41, ostensibly for better demographic representation. However, BJP sources acknowledge that the additional benefit of the move is to add more seats in the party’s stronghold areas. This, they say, is not a new strategy.

“In 2017, there were 25 Municipal Corporation seats, but the Congress government under CM Virbhadra Singh increased the number to 34. Wards were bifurcated from the Congress strongholds, Kasumpati and Shimla Rural, with the intention of mustering a majority,” a BJP leader in Himachal said.

The plan didn’t work out for the Congress, he added, but the BJP was hoping for better results with the same tactic.

“The BJP is using the same trick to add seven wards in Shimla city, which is the BJP stronghold area, to retain its grip. The official reason, though, is to balance the population in wards, some of which have a population of 10,000 while others are smaller,” the leader said.

To further its cause in the city, the BJP government in February announced the Shimla Development Plan 2041, intended to take the place of an interim development plan that had been devised in 1979. The new plan focuses on decongestion and upgradation of the city as well as the creation of four satellite townships in Naldehra, Fagu, Ghandal, and Chamiyana.

“It is the first time that such an elaborate, futuristic plan has been made for Shimla’s development,” BJP state general secretary Rakesh Jamwal said.

“It will be a game-changer and benefit thousands of people who were stuck due to restrictions on construction. We are sure even the NGT (National Green Tribunal) will support this plan… There are legal hurdles but we have shown courage to bring out a blueprint for the future,” he added.

Benefits galore ahead of elections

On 15 March, the last day of the state Budget session, the Himachal government passed five bills — quite a tally for a single day.

Among the most politically important was giving property rights of 75 square metres to slum dwellers. These informal urban settlements are concentrated in Shimla city as well as the Bilaspur and Baddi industrial areas. Around 3,000 slum-dwellers in Shimla are expected to benefit from this. Also, the BJP has added a municipal ward in the slum-dominated Krishna Nagar area.

Himachal Pradesh Urban Development Minister Suresh Bhardwaj told ThePrint that the BJP government was trying to meet a “long-pending demand” of people who were living in unhygienic conditions with no power connections. “It is our effort to give them dignity… who will care for these people from the lower strata of society?” he asked.

In another move to benefit lakhs of ordinary residents, CM Thakur announced in January that free electricity up to 60 units per month for domestic users, and a charge of only Re 1 for 60 to 125 units (down from Rs 1.90). Farmers, too, would have to pay only 30 paise per unit (down from 50 paise), his said in his announcement. A BJP leader told ThePrint that this move had “nothing to do with elections” and was only a “small gesture to lower the burden of the people”.

Other moves to “lower the burden” include an amendment in the Himachal Pradesh Electricity Supply Code to make it easier to get a power connection and a plan to reduce water tariffs in the city area.

“We are working to lower water tax in the municipal area,” Bhardwaj said. “Our work in waste management, parking, renewable energy, and the new plan to decongest Shimla are path-breaking,” he added, pointing out that last year Shimla topped NITI Aayog’s Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) Urban Index.

Unemployment is another big challenge in the hill state, and in the Budget, the CM, who also holds the finance portfolio, announced the government’s intention of providing 30,000 jobs during the year.

Further, the government has reduced the pension age limit while increasing the amount for widows and the destitute, and announced pay hikes for pretty much everyone from MLAs and mayors, to anganwadi workers and pump operators.

Campaign plan: Padyatras, thank you notes

Over the last three days, the BJP has started doing the groundwork on its campaign for the Himachal assembly polls, with the central leadership also playing a role.

Earlier this week, BJP national vice-president and old RSS hand Saudan Singh headed to the state to preside over a brainstorming session on winning strategies and beating anti-incumbency with local leaders.

Campaign plans are already taking shape. From 6 April, the foundation day of the BJP, until the end of next month, party cadres will go from village to village to hoist BJP flags and spread the word door to door, according to state BJP general secretary Trilok Kapoor.

“Thanksgiving functions will be held where party functionaries will meet beneficiaries of government schemes,” Kapoor said.

He added that a list of beneficiaries was also being prepared so that the CM could thank people for giving him the opportunity to serve them. “The chief minister will send a postcard to such beneficiaries as thanks for five years of seva (service) that the BJP government has done,” he said.

(Edited by Asavari Singh)

Also Read: Licensed to torture: How drug rehabs in Himachal use beatings to ‘treat’ addicts


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