Himachal Pradesh: Back to Nature?

Published in Hardnews magazine (January, 2013)

Judging by the newsprint and TV time devoted to the Gujarat elections, Narendra Modi has clearly been the hyped-up story of the assembly polls this winter, and his mythical development agenda thenarrative to beat. The carnage of 2002 has been all but buried in this one-dimensional hyperbole. However, the results from Himachal Pradesh are equally, if not more, fascinating. This is because, unlike most states, here, a change of regime from one party to another does not lead to a systemic overhaul or retributive actions. This is a state of affairs that is extremely positive, and may be an explanation for the steady rise of social and economic indicators over the past three decades. Moreover, the voters’ oscillation between the Congress and BJP turns out to be a system that spreads developmental activities of the state more evenly. Despite this, it is a system under stress due to the rapidly-changing political and economic circumstances in the state.

In sharp contrast to the third straight victory for the BJP in Gujarat, the assembly results in Himachal Pradesh have, once again, followed the state’s usual tendency. Since 1990, the electorate has alternated between the Congress and BJP, a pattern that continued in 2012 despite indications to the contrary. Despite this history, observers are surprised by the relatively facile victory of the Congress, given the political atmosphere in the build-up to the polls.

The anti-incumbency busting victory of the SAD-BJP combine in neighbouring Punjab had given hope to the BJP’s outgoing chief minister, Prem Kumar Dhumal, of a return to power. So had the BJP’s — not entirely incorrect — reading of its own performance in power, during which period Himachal continued its climb in key human development indicators. The explosion of anti-corruption movements against the Congress across the country, and the saliency of pricerise, particularly the unpopularity of the LPG cap, had propelled BJP optimism in the run-up. Having also lined up Modi as their star campaigner, in a peaceful state where vicious communal polarisations don’t work, the BJP was in high spirits.

In turn, having ensconced its talismanic leader and five-time chief minister, Virbhadra Singh, in the central cabinet, even the Congress seemed to enhance BJP chances as it toyed with the idea of installing Anand Sharma, a nobody in Himachal (or national) politics, as the party leader. Peeved with an insensitive Congress high command, Singh was on the verge of joining the NCP before a last-minute reconciliatory communication by Sonia Gandhi’s emissary reinstated him as in charge of the campaign. Singh’s return to Himachal was also an unintended consequence of his resignation from the union cabinet due to allegations of corruption (Ispat Steel diary notings). Whatever his trajectory, his homecoming certainly made BJP workers extremely nervous, for they were well aware of the massive following and support the veteran commands in large parts of the state.

Regardless, and unlike the sort of social and policy breaks that are witnessed concomitant to regime change in other states, UP, for instance, in Himachal there is significant continuity. Both parties abide by a broadly developmental state policy and have placed adequate emphasis on education, health, and social protection. They are thus to be equally credited for what the hill state has been able to achieve.

school

school

road

road

Compared to other states that spend about 2-3 per cent of state GDP on education, Himachal’s expenditure is consistently over 7 per cent, and the number of schools and colleges has more than tripled between 1970-71 and 2000-01. Equally impressive have been the achievements in terms of public health; the number of primary health centres and sub-centres has multipled by about eight times in the same period. Despite their larger ideological divergences, long-time observers ascribe the cross-party consensus to the bottom-up pressure from the Himachal electorate, seeking development, which is expressed in the lively village, district and state politics. The grassroots insistence on roads and schools means that candidates must seek votes on their track record or promises related to these variables.

In fact, at election meetings, it is common to see a sort of democratic dialogue — instead of orchestrated crowd reactions a la Modi — between the candidates and the public where the former have to answer tough questions related to local concerns. And seemingly popular candidates are often unceremoniously discarded if they are seen to have failed in their developmental duties. Witness the case of Kush Parmar, the sitting MLA, who lost from Nahan to an ‘outsider’ from the BJP. Despite being the son of highly respected YS Parmar, the founding father of Himachal, and despite his decency and clean image, he was voted out because he was inefficient, ineffective, elusive and lazy, and did little for his constituency located in a rather backward Sirmour.

Interestingly, this tendency cuts across categories like caste, and consequently, politics, and does not entirely revolve around the often cynical calculus of identity as in other states. To be sure, in most of Himachal, caste does not entirely coincide with landlessness and one does not find the sort of naked exploitation of Dalits that is the norm in many other states. Yet, the Himachal experience shows that a broad human development in tune with local characteristics and ecological sustainability, and meaningful affirmative action, has the potential to uplift and empower historically marginalised sections. The story of the tribal parts of the state is hugely encouraging: the most isolated and topographically challenging districts of Kinnaur and Lahaul-Spiti have witnessed a veritable revolution in agriculture/horticulture and education — there are remote villages in these districts with IAS officers in many households.

While the Congress chief ministers  — YS Parmar, Thakur Ram Lal and Virbhadra Singh — have been from Upper Himachal, BJP’s Shanta Kumar and PK Dhumal come from Lower Himachal. As a result, some districts end up gaining more with the shift of regional emphasis with each regime change. Therefore, what may seem like the electorate’s robotic flip-flop becomes a mechanism that equalises welfare across the hill state’s key economic-cultural regions.

However, there are new challenges to this social contract, mostly due to the rising clout of big business. Several large hydroelectric and cement projects have already irreversibly damaged ecosystems and local livelihoods even as many more are planned, threatening to annul the micro-level development emphasis that has hitherto existed. Even a part of the Great Himalayan National Park in Kullu district was denotified when required for the 2050 MW Parvati Hydel Project. Protests are currently ongoing around the fate of the proposed Renuka dam in Sirmour district, which is projected to supply 25 per cent of Delhi’s projected water demand, but will lead to the submergence of 37 villages in addition to massive ecological damage. Besides, for how long will hill states sustain the insatiable needs of a metropolis like Delhi?

The inflation of property values linked to infrastructure development and tourism has brought the familiar real estate mafia and corrupt nexus of speculative enterprises and administration to Himachal’s doorstep. It is alleged that the dozens of private universities allotted subsidised land by the Dhumal government are, in essence, fronts for real estate businesses. These include a university in Kangra owned by the infamous Haryana Congress politician, Gopal Kanda, now in jail, which was given over 110 acres. There are allegations of corrupt commercial deals posited as private educational institutions flying all over Solan.

The politicisation and commercialisation of sport, another nexus imported from outside, is also on the rise. Dhumal’s son and MP, Anurag Thakur, is the president of the Himachal Olympic Association and the Himachal Pradesh Cricket Association; the latter built a swanky cricket stadium in Dharamsala where the lucrative IPL is held. Once again, it has been alleged that the increase in land value around the stadium has been unfairly cornered.

Indeed, and not unlike Kerala, the Himachal experience shows that some manner of stability in state policy is important for sustained economic and human development. This does not imply the need for single-party rule, but is thoroughly possible within a vibrant democratic polity. In Himachal, the exchange of baton every electoral cycle between the BJP and Congress does not impede the developmental arc of the state, while it certainly helps distribute it more evenly. But the emergence of big business and speculative/commercial interests threatens to derail the state’s human development-focused policy; these challenges must be urgently debated and contested.

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