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An apple vs orange battle for Himachal CM post

October 16, 2012 09:39 IST
The intersection of economics and politics will be crucial to assembly poll verdict in Himachal Pradesh, wites Aditi Phadnis

If there is one person who will enthusiastically root for Narendra Modi as prime minister, it is likely to be Bharatiya Janata Party leader Prem Kumar Dhumal, under whose chief ministership Himachal Pradesh will face elections on November 4.

Little is known about the politics of Himachal Pradesh since it sends only four MPs to the Lok Sabha -- but that makes it no less absorbing. Since the state has less than two per cent Muslims, the politics of sants  and mandir has no takers.

Politicians from Himachal don't really fully comprehend how religion can be a matter of life and death -- poor Shanta Kumar lost his job as Union minister when Atal Bihari Vajpayee was prime minister. Kumar endorsed, a little too enthusiastically, Vajpayee's "Raj Dharma" advice to Narendra Modi in the wake of the 2002 Godhra riots, in the mistaken belief that Vajpayee needed moral support. Vajpayee took away his ministership instead.

Kumar's remarks at that time were rooted in his resentment against Modi. In the brief period that he was general secretary of the BJP in charge of Himachal (1997), Modi had tried to create a new crop of younger leaders to replace Shanta Kumar.

Among them were Suresh Chandel, Kripal Parmar and Prem Kumar Dhumal, who has now become Kumar's biggest rival.

Dhumal has been chief minister of Himachal Pradesh twice. The earlier term, 1998-2003, was completed with the help and support of Sukh Ram, who headed the Himachal Vikas Party. The last five years have been managed by the BJP on its own, without any help from supporting parties. However, with anti-incumbency, factional politics and foreign direct investment in retail, this time the going might not be that smooth for the BJP.

The intersection of economics and politics is going to be most visibly on test in the coming assembly election in Himachal Pradesh. The state is best known for its horticulture and fruit processing-linked politics -- the power of the apple versus that of the orange (or, more correctly, kinnu).

While the BJP government in Himachal Pradesh is toeing the party policy and opposing FDI in retail, fruit and vegetable farmers across the state have welcomed the move.

The state produces over 1.3 million tons of vegetables annually, including off-season vegetables for which there is huge demand across northern India; and a variety of fruit, especially apple. Stone fruit, including almond, peach, pear, plum and cherry, is also grown -- production in a good year can go up to a million tonnes. But farmers always worry about timely transportation of their produce.

Their biggest frustration is the lack of cold stores, particularly cold chains for highly perishable fruit like cherry, apricot, peach and plum.

All this should see a boost with the opening up of the retail sector to large investments through FDI, say local businessmen. But the BJP is opposing FDI in retail and the back-end investment that results from it.

The BJP, led by Dhumal, is operating on the premise that as domestic retail -- stores set up by Mukesh Ambani and the Adanis -- is already buying directly from the farmer, foreign investment is irrelevant. But farmers in Himachal Pradesh are an ambitious lot.

They want more than just the price offered by current private sector procurers, which is marginally higher than the support price the state government offers. They figure that the more competition there is, the higher the price they will command for their produce.

The Congress is promoting FDI in retail, the BJP is opposing it. So you decide: which is better for the Himachal farmer?

The traditional Himachal Pradesh ruling elite has come from the ranks of either Upper Himachal (the apple-growing lobby) or lower Himachal (the orange growers). Who promises what kind of breaks to which lobby determines the outcome of the election.

Six districts of Himachal Pradesh -- Kullu, Mandi, Sirmaur, Solan, Kinnaur and Shimla -- represent the apple lobby. These are also the regions from where Congress leaders like Virbhadra Singh and Vidya Stokes come. This has been Congress country. Lower Himachal has willy-nilly become BJP country. If lower Himachal revolts against the BJP, the party will lose the game.

How the parties are going to woo government servants is another issue. Since every fifth Himachali is a government servant, literacy is upwards of 90 per cent and the average per capita income is high (Rs 58,493 in 2010-2011, according to the Asian Development Bank). The transfer-posting industry is central to elections.

This is almost always deeply mired in under-the-table exchanges, so every change of government is accompanied by a campaign about whether it was less or more corrupt than the earlier one.   

The Dhumal government, too, has been criticised for cronyism and corruption: Congress leader Virbhadra Singh recently charged that the Himachal Pradesh government had violated laws for giving a tea estate to a trust linked to Prashant Bhushan in relaxation of provisions of section 118 of the Tenancy and Land Reforms Act and section 6 and 6A of the Ceiling on Land Holdings Act, to buy four hectares of tea estate land in Palampur.

Given the current climate, this controversy could escalate.
Aditi Phadnis
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