Himachal Pradesh: Natural Selection

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Who will win Himachal Pradesh? Is that even a question?

SOME THINGS JUST are. Dawn will break on the Dauladhars from the east, the streams will gush downhill, the lotus will bloom in Shimla again, and the Potus—a man called Trump—will chant ‘NaMo NaMo’ to regain the White House. Okay, scratch that last bit out, but the rest of it is pretty much the natural order of things in north India’s hill state of Himachal Pradesh, due for Assembly polls on November 9th. That it’s the BJP’s turn in power here is a given. In Dharamshala, the state’s winter capital, even school kids go about reciting the party’s tried-and-tested rhyme to be spotted on wall after wall: ‘Ab Ki Baar, BJP Sarkaar’.

Not that there is no suspense in the air whatsoever. For a few days, the wondering aloud was whether assigning Narendra Modi a chunk of credit for Trump’s 2016 victory would be enough for BJP’s Prem Kumar Dhumal—who did as much at an election rally on October 27th—to secure his party’s nomination as its candidate- in-chief to replace Congress’ Virbhadra Singh as Himachal’s Chief Minister. Though Dhumal has headed the state twice before and is assumed by locals to be the BJP’s numero uno leader here, his face does not feature too noticeably on its campaign posters. In news just in, the party has finally declared his candidacy for the state’s top post, but the BJP publicity blitz is unlikely to register anything more than a cursory acknowledgement. So long as Modi looms large, the ballot’s in the bag. So goes the belief. Like elsewhere, a vote for BJP is a vote for Modi, after all. As a local variant of the party’s main slogan has it, Himachal’s ‘pukaar’, its cry, is simply for a BJP government.

“Yeh Himachal ka fashion hai,” says Chandra Shekhar Attri, a 42-year-old cabbie who also happens to be my local go-to person, explaining why the BJP would get a majority of the state’s 68-seat Assembly to turf the Congress out, and that too with the ease of a finger snap. “There are two parties, they win turn by turn, and there is no competition,” he elaborates. “Aisa hi chaltaa hai.” So it goes.

Not too far from the Vidhan Bhavan on a remote hillock of pines that hosts a week-long legislative session—a desultory affair for the most part—at a relatively warm 850 metres above sea level every December, a Congress poster makes an appearance with an outsized image of Chief Minister Virbhadra Singh alongside a smaller one of somebody. ‘Vote: Na Naare Ko, Na Naam Ko, Kiye Gaye Kaam Ko,’ it says in Hindi, exhorting voters not to go for slogans and names, but for work done. Does it have any appeal with the electorate? Dharamshala and its rural outback both look rather spruced up; the solar panels for street lights are hard to miss; and like the rest of the routes we’ve taken to get to this village across the Palampur highway, even Rakkar Road looks remarkably well laid as we wind our way uphill along what was a patchy trail of cattle droppings shrouded in obscurity a few years ago. This road is not all that obscure anymore, however, Attri updates me as he points to a palatial house being built further up the incline by local legislator Sudhir Sharma, the ‘somebody’ on the aforeseen Congress poster and also the state’s urban development minister.

Well, we’re upwardly mobile too. Our destination for the afternoon is a jharna a kilometre or so ahead, a delightful little cascade of an icy stream over mighty boulders that whooshes itself into our ears as soon as the car curves in. It’s a favourite spot of mine to roll up my jeans, chill my feet and splash my face—all the better to slow life down, refresh the nerves and get into a suitably idyllic mood to scout around for all that urban life doesn’t afford.

TOO LATE. ON radio airwaves, the word ‘mood’ has already been appropriated by the BJP. One ad spot after another speaks of how dark it is in Himachal, its sign-off a phonetic play of Modi as a ‘mood’ uplifter. Airing as a purported conversation, one ad clip has male voices investing hope in the party for development, while another focuses on justice, with women alleging that the government has done its utmost to shield the attackers of Gudiya, whose recent gang-rape and murder sent shockwaves across the hills. The clip that sounds the most outraged of all is about corruption, with the purity of this holy ‘devboomi’ said to be so badly defiled by misrule that an unspecified ‘ooparwaala’ above would want a clean-up put into effect rightaway.

Rajender Sanaria, a cashier at a cooperative grocery in Kotwali Bazaar halfway from Dharamshala to McLeodganj, more or less echoes that ad (but for its supernatural references). His conclusion: “Congress is corrupt.” He voted for it in 2012, he says, and will vote BJP this year in support of all the ‘sudhaar’ (reforms) brought about by the Centre. The note ban was a good measure, in his view, because the withdrawal of high-value currency deprived black- money hoarders of their ill-gotten stash; and GST, he argues, has exposed all the traders with “doh number ka maal”, the sleazebags that were ducking taxes but charging market rates for staples. Sales of wheat, rice and pulses have risen at his outlet, he reports, now that all those scoundrels have been left high and dry.

So long as Modi looms large, the ballot’s in the bag. So goes the belief. As a local variant of the party’s main slogan has it, Himachal’s ‘pukaar’, its cry, is simply for a BJP government

Jagdish, 60, a vegetable vendor seated on the pavement at the co-op shop’s entrance, is unmoved by Sanaria’s argument. Virbhadra Singh still has his vote, he says, for all the work he has done. “Hamein kya jhoot bolne ki zaroorat hai,” he says, declaring himself free of any need to lie and talking of roads and hospitals for the poor. Schools and sanitation too, chips in Vishal Rana, 28, an electric gizmo repairman at a shop counter a few yards away. And what of the scams the current regime is accused of? “Jo satta mein aataa hai,” Jagdish replies with an elderly sigh, “Woh paisa khaata hai.” Whoever becomes a ruler, makes his own moolah.

Few admit any awareness of a CBI probe of Virbhadra Singh’s modest apple orchards having earned him money enough to fund the immodest assets in his alleged possession. “Till there is no proof, what is there to say?” asks a bystander who claims an inkling of the scandal, his next breath a scoff at how clueless the CBI appears on Gudiya’s killers. Pressed for a whiff of rot he might have sniffed in the Chief Minister’s case of apples, he declines. Others around shake their heads too, some look puzzled by its relevance, and it’s left to me to work out the irony of a raja—Singh traces his descent to Bushehr royalty—being faulted by his praja for ownership of assets way out of proportion to his earnings.

Other nuggets of news also draw blank faces. No one gets worked up by the dynastic aspect of the 83-year-old Chief Minister letting his son Vikramaditya Singh contest his Shimla Rural seat (while he shifts to Arki in Solan district); the 73-year-old Dhumal’s son, Aditya Thakur, is in politics too. “It’s the Rajput way.” Nobody has an opinion on how the 89-year-old Congress veteran Vidya Stokes found herself seatless as the outcome of either a bungle or a boot upstairs. No one expresses surprise over the news that Chetan Parmar, grandson of Himachal’s first Chief Minister Yashwant Singh Parmar, has switched over from the ruling party to the opposition. None of it matters. Nor is caste considered an axis of political loyalty, even if some analysts argue that politics here has long been under the unspoken dominance of Rajputs, an identity claimed by a third of the state’s 6.9 million odd people, in subtle alliance with its Brahmins, claimed by as many as 18 per cent. But even if this is so, caste serves no purpose of electoral analysis since no group is thought to be aligned with any single party. In theory, this is good. It makes for a competitive two-party field, with a large number of swing voters switching their picks at polling booths to reward or punish those entrusted with power. If rival parties are assumed to be responsive, it ought to spell better outcomes for everyone over successive electoral cycles. In reality, it’s unclear if this hill state actually operates that way. If caste has no effective role, neither does most of what might make for a policy debate.

“There is peace and there is greenery already,” says Attri, “Maybe they can control the pace of construction. This is not an electoral issue but it should be. People come from outside the state, buy land for agriculture, and then open up homestay resorts.” There are also other issues being ignored, he believes, as a result of the laziness inherent in a duopoly of power. No competition, as he puts it.

Right now, of course, the party to bash is the ruling one. “Congress ka programme dheela hai,” says Sanjeev Kumar, 49, a PWD worker who lives in Panjrukhi village. He finds the ruling party’s agenda too loose for any good, gleefully disclosing that he owes his job to Dhumal. “BJP ki lehar hai,” he says, a wave in the party’s favour that he attributes to Modi. He admires the Prime Minister for his ravaiyya, his stance, as well as his work. What’s more, the BJP has parampara on its side, he grins, a tradition that won’t be flouted. “After five years…” he flip-flops his hand.

Sandala Devi, a 50-year-old resident of Kot Kawal village in Kangra district, seems stunned into silence on being asked who she expects will form the state’s next government. “Lagta hai, BJP ki banegi,” she says, recovering her vocal chords to cite Modi’s party as the one that looks set to be sworn in by Governor Acharya Dev Vrat on December 18th, but not before a mostly-male crowd has gathered around. The party has done a lot of work, she says. There was no water, so it had a hand pump installed. It got roads paved. Above all, she says, “Modi gareebon ke saath hain.” The Prime Minister is with the poor. And what does she make of a policy move like notebandi? Another good turn done unto the poor.

Uma Thakur, 37, a mother of two who lives in Nurpur but often visits her pre-marital home in Rakkar village, offers a nuanced appraisal of which way the vote will go where. The first factor to consider, she says, is an overall BJP wave that is easily explained. “Janata badlaav chaahti hai aur Himachal mein repeat nahin hota.” People want change and in Himachal re-election does not happen. Second, the Centre is BJP-run. “Naturally, this has an influence. Modi has four rallies? That’s all the party needs.” The complexity that arises is in places where the Congress has actually done an impressive job; Dharamshala, for example, has been nurtured quite well by Sharma, in her estimation. Such seats, Thakur says, the Congress will retain. “Aisi sambhaavna hai,” she takes care to clarify. It’s a possibility.

If the likelihood of seat-by-seat public approval lends the ruling party some confidence, it doesn’t show. Asked how he thinks the hand symbol will perform at the hustings, Congress worker Sushil spouts his lower lip all the way out in doubt if not outright despair.

MORE THAN ANKLE deep at the jharna in the froth of molten ice off Dauladhar glaciers, my mind swirls to recall a sub-zero psychology experiment as my hands scoop up yet another splashful of water.

Ah yes, it was Daniel Kahneman’s, was it not? The Psychology professor who won a Nobel prize for Economics in 2002 is now better known for his 2011 book, Thinking, Fast and Slow, in which he contrasts intuitive thinking that’s emotional and jumpy with the deliberative sort that’s analytical and logical. In a memorable chapter on his research, he recounts having put a group of subjects to a kind of torture test under lab conditions. He had one hand kept under freezing water for 60 seconds and taken out to be swaddled in a warm towel, and then the other placed in equally cold water for an equal duration followed by an extra 30 seconds with less-chilly water let into the tub. Given a choice of repeating either the 60- or 90-second episode, most of them opted for the latter! This is absurd, of course, since it means an extended period of pain. But people are people, the professor explains, they rely on a hazy memory of relief rather than their actual experience.

That insight of memory has been used to explain plenty of popular responses in the realm of politics, the mass recovery from last year’s note ban included. Yet, expectations of change as an inevitability perhaps count for something too: regardless of the shivers that shoot up one’s spine, the implicit assurance that there’s likely to be relief at the end of it, maybe even refreshment once out of the frost box.

Fast or slow, that warm thought calls for another splatter of icy water, surely, this time with my eyes wide open. Whoa! It’s sensational, to say the least. In the natural order of succession, Himachal suggests, some things just are.