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Lok Sabha 2024: Is Devbhoomi Beyond Congress' Reach?

During my travel, I sensed tremendous resentment against the Congress government led by Sukhvinder Singh Sukhu.

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(This is the ninth in a series of insightful reports from the ground, titled The Race From India to Bharat. The author travels all across India as 960 million voters get ready to celebrate the largest festival of democracy in the world: the 2024 Lok Sabha elections. What do ordinary Indians think and feel about the past, present, and future of India? Are they convinced that the old fault lines are healing?)

(Read part one here, part two here, part three here, part four here, part five here, part six here, part seven here, and part eight here.)

The author drove back from Shimla just as voting inside the assembly was about to take place to elect a Rajya Sabha MP from Himachal Pradesh. Quite a few people the author met in the state between 25 and 27 February had dropped hints that the Congress party was about to be hit by a bombshell.

Since my journey of three months across the country is one about the mindsets and attitudes of ordinary citizens as India transitions to Bharat, I did not pay much attention to local political developments. Besides, the Rajya Sabha election looked like a cakewalk for the Congress.

In an assembly of 68, it had 40 MLAs with three more independent MLAs supporting it. What could the BJP with just 25 MLAs do?

Yet, I had sensed tremendous resentment against the Congress government led by Sukhvinder Singh Sukhu. In Kandaghat, a shopkeeper spoke about broken promises.

In a village near Shimla which falls in the rural Shimla assembly constituency, a group of men appeared angry with the Sukhu regime for insulting the memory of their Raja Saheb. The Raja in this case is the late Virbhadra Singh, six-time CM of Himachal Pradesh who had won the Shimla rural seat in 2012.

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Across Himachal, there seems to be a lot of respect for Raja Saheb even among the BJP supporters. His son Vikramaditya Singh, a minister in the current government, is leading a revolt within the Congress.

Himachal is not flippantly called the Dev Bhoomi. Not only is the state home to scores of wondrous temples dedicated to assorted deities, but the people also have a deep and rooted faith in Hinduism. The devotion you find here is not the type of in-your-face Hindutva one finds in the plains of Uttar Pradesh, but a gentler yet firm faith.

For the many people the author interacted with during the two-day trip to Himachal, the Congress top leadership had committed an act of treachery, of sin even, by “boycotting” the consecration ceremony of the Ram Lalla idol at Ayodhya on 22 January.

Even die-hard Congress supporters were deeply unhappy with the decision. For them, the return of Ram was beyond “party politics”; it was a powerful symbol of the resurgence of Hindu civilisation. Thousands had already gone on a “pilgrimage” to Ayodhya since 22 January to have a glimpse of the new idol.

For this category of people, and they constitute the dominant majority of the state, the Congress's decision was inexplicable and petty. When the author was in southern Tamil Nadu and Kerala before travelling to Himachal, Ram was hardly a factor. But in Himachal, the deity dominated the narrative.

According to the veteran journalist Rajneesh Sharma who has covered Himachal for decades, it would have been wiser for the Congress, at least in Himachal, to formally send a delegation to Ayodhya for the consecration ceremony. In any case, Vikramaditya Singh had publicly announced that Ram was more important to him than the party and he had defied the party line by attending the consecration ceremony.

In Bilaspur on the way to Hamirpur, a group of youngsters talked about Anurag Thakur. According to them, the “simple” folks of the state do not like arrogance, and it seems Anurag Thakur had displayed arrogance on occasion. Not surprisingly, Pratibha Singh, the widow of Virbhadra Singh and the mother of Vikramaditya had handsomely won the by-election to the nearby Mandi Lok Sabha seat in 2021, shocking BJP supporters. The youngsters in Bilaspur say that was just a message and a warning from voters.

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But as a Ram wave sweeps the state, all the complaints against Thakur have been washed away in a swell of support for the BJP. In the 2019 Lok Sabha elections, the BJP had not only swept all four seats, but it had also gathered a staggering 69 per cent vote share. Most people in the state think 2024 will be a repeat of 2019.

Besides, while the Congress did win 40 seats in the 2022 assembly elections, the difference between the Congress and the BJP in all the 68 seats combined was a mere 38,000 votes. The situation was ripe for the BJP to stage a comeback from day one.

The opportunity came knocking when the Congress high command nominated Abhishek Manu Singhvi as the Rajya Sabha candidate. The BJP promptly nominated a Congress old-timer Harsh Mahajan, who joined the BJP a few years ago, as its candidate. By the time the author had reached home in NCR and switched on the TV, a distraught Singhvi sitting next to a stone-faced Sukhu was conceding defeat.

For the author, the defeat of Abhishek Manu Singhvi in a Rajya Sabha election that should have been won comfortably was not that important. More important seems the real disconnect between the Congress top brass and what the Indian voters are thinking.

(Sutanu Guru is the Executive Director of the CVoter Foundation. This is an opinion article and the views expressed above are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for them.)

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