x Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 25 July 2017

Himachal vote will be first guide to India's 2014 elections

After a two-week campaign laced with corruption allegations, India's two main political parties face off today in the Himalayan state of Himachal Pradesh.

India's ruling Congress party president, Sonia Gandhi, salutes party volunteers as she arrives to address an election rally in Kangra, Himachal Pradesh.
India's ruling Congress party president, Sonia Gandhi, salutes party volunteers as she arrives to address an election rally in Kangra, Himachal Pradesh.

NEW DELHI // After a two-week campaign laced with corruption allegations, India's two main political parties face off today in the Himalayan state of Himachal Pradesh.

The contest is regarded as a referendum on the country's Congress-led government and a portent of national elections in 2014.

Himachal is traditionally a Congress party stronghold but the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) won the state in a 2007 upset.

The incumbent BJP chief minister, Prem Kumar Dhumal, 68, has been investigated for offering a police officer 250 million rupees (Dh17m) in bribes to tap the phone lines of his political rival, Virbhadra Singh.

Mr Singh, 78, who has been chief minister of the state five times and leads the Congress campaign in Himachal, has been accused by anti-corruption activists of tax evasion, money-laundering and forgery.

He quit in June as a minister of small businesses after a court charged him in a corruption case. Mr Singh has denied the charges.

Today's election to the 68-member assembly will be the first of 10 state polls across the country within the next year, including the key states of New Delhi, Madhya Pradesh and Karnataka.

In the latest poll by CNN-IBN, a local news channel, BJP was projected to win 41 per cent of the total vote, with Congress taking 40 per cent.

"The taint of the allegations is difficult to figure out yet. Election results will determine how much effect that has had," said Jagdeep Chhokar, one of the founders of the Association for Democratic Reforms, an independent organisation for improving and strengthening democracy and governance.

Petty corruption on a local level, such as bribing police officers or bureaucrats to obtain services, is largely ignored by the public who "consider it a necessary evil", Mr Chhokar said.

But he said the middle class, the biggest voting bloc in the state, paid attention to large-scale corruption claims such as the 2G-licensing scandal.

Politicians and business leaders are being investigated over the sale of mobile-phone contracts in an irregular process the auditor said had cost the country tens of billions of dollars.

But Mr Chhokar said the bigger issue in Himachal Pradesh was unemployment and the economy. More than half of the state's 4.5 million eligible voters are under the age of 35, those hit hardest by the lack of jobs and the rising cost of living.

"Corruption at the centre and taint on the leaders running for elections has an effect on the elections, but the price rise of diesel and cooking gas are a larger issue," said Subrata Mukherjee, former head of the political science department at the University of Delhi.

He added that economic development had yet to arrive in the mainly agricultural state, where 90 per cent of residents live in rural areas.

"There is great demand for government jobs because there is not much else for the educated population to do," he said. "The economy has not taken off here."

The shortage of jobs has little to do with the education level of the state's residents.

According to last year's Census, Himachal's literacy rate is 83.78 per cent, compared with the national average of 74.04.

Commentators say the Himachal election may well be a guide as to results in the national polls.

"The importance of the HP elections is that it has put the two major national political parties in a face-off," said Mr Chhokar. "This is a key thing nationally"

India's Congress-led government is struggling to hold on to power after years of policy paralysis, worsening economic data and corruption allegations.

The results of the Himachal election are due on December 20.

sbhattacharya@thenational.ae

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