Four years, four defeats later, Himachal CM confident of turnaround in election year

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Four years and four defeats later, Jai Ram Thakurs report card may not appear to be great.

The pressure just mounted on the first-time Chief Minister of Himachal Pradesh after the November bypolls saw a Congress clean sweep. The grand old party retained two Assembly seats and won the other, besides bagging the Lok Sabha seat in Mandi.

Thakur has another year to improve his performance, lest the stamp of failure prevents him from being promoted for the second time at the helm — a phenomenon that never happened in the politics of the hills dominated only by the BJP and the Congress.

Firmly believing that with corruption-free governance as well as speedy and uniform development, he enjoys a free hand to lead the party till the next Assembly elections slated at the end of 2022.

The first-time Chief Minister says these four years have seen ‘remarkable achievements’, even though the Congress would want everyone to believe otherwise”.

“As we enter the election year, we hope to work with renewed zeal to enable the party to return to power once again,” Thakur, who believes development and no witch hunting is his success mantra, told IANS on returning to the state capital with an assurance from Prime Minister Narendra Modi that he will be visiting Mandi town on December 27, the day the government is completing four years of governance.

Five-time legislator Thakur (56) was elevated after the party’s chief ministerial candidate, Prem Kumar Dhumal, suffered an abject defeat from Sujanpur in the 2017 Assembly polls. Several names were doing the rounds at that time, including that of now BJP President J.P. Nadda, whom the party did not relieve from national politics.

Quoting this week’s Comptroller and Auditor General of India (CAG) report, political rivals say the main challenge for the government is the state’s deteriorating fiscal health with overall liabilities at the end of 2019-20 at Rs 62,212 crore, having grown at 14.57 per cent over the previous year.

Also, they say, Thakur has not managed to establish his credentials in these years as a charismatic leader unlike his predecessor and two-time Chief Minister Dhumal.

They gun Thakur for lacking “acumen” and the administrative skills to run the government.

“Thakur is a good human being, but he lacks the administrative skills and shrewdness to run a government. He and his ministerial team, largely first-timers, cannot face and even tackle new challenges,” a political rival, requesting anonymity, told IANS.

“The weak Cabinet is not capable of fulfilling the aspirations of the people. They largely bank on the Central leadership to remain at the helm,” added the rival.

After the bypoll results, the opposition Congress has been demanding that the Chief Minister should accept responsibility for the defeat and resign.

But Thakur, who was a Cabinet minister under both the terms of Dhumal as CM, said it was simply a “Virbhadra wave” that did the trick for the Congress.

Thakur said the Congress won because of the sympathy with the late Virbhadra Singh, which would not happen in the Assembly elections.

“People of Himachal are emotional and get swayed by appeals, but this will not happen every time,” he said.

Six-time Chief Minister Virbhadra Singh passed away in July this year.

Without mincing words, Thakur, who has brought a generational change in state politics, added that the defeat was a timely alert for the party which would help overcome the shortcomings.

To join the celebrations of the BJP government’s four years in office, Modi, who has complemented the state for becoming the first in the country to administer at least one dose of the Covid vaccine to its entire eligible population, and for its efforts in natural farming, will be in Thakur’s hometown Mandi on November 27

Besides addressing a gathering, Modi will inaugurate and lay foundation stones for projects and schemes worth Rs 11,279 crore, including the foundation for the Rs 6,700 crore Renukaji dam project.

“In the past four years, we have achieved milestones in hydropower generation, industrialisation, education, infrastructure development and giving monetary succour to government employees, despite the pandemic wreaking havoc for nearly two years now,” Thakur said.

He said the Prime Minister has a special bond with the state and its people. “He will come here again in the next four months to inaugurate the AIIMS in Bilaspur,” Thakur said.

This is the first time in the history of the state that development projects worth Rs 11,279 crore are being dedicated to the people by any Prime Minister, Thakur said.

The hill state, whose hydropower generation as well as horticulture and tourism are major contributors to its economic development, is facing one of its worst financial crises with liabilities increasing from Rs 41,197 crore in 2015-16 to Rs 62,212 crore in 2019-20, as per the CAG report.

The situation looks grimmer in the coming years in view of public debt growing at a faster rate, less funds available for the development and capital creation and higher volume of outstanding public debt.

“We inherited a loan burden of over Rs 46,500 crore from the previous government due to their financial mismanagement and unmindful expenditure. Therefore, the biggest challenge before us was to bring back the derailed economy back on track,” said the Chief Minister.

The state, he said, has implemented several decisions and schemes which are bound to transform its economy and the people.

Thakur, who rose through the ranks, believes that establishing direct contact with the common masses will definitely help his party retain power after the Assembly elections.

“The Jan Manch (public meeting in every district headquarters on first Sunday of a month) programme launched by the government has been appreciated even by our political opponents,” he said.

Himachal Pradesh is a special category state. Accordingly, it is entitled to financial assistance from the government of India in the ratio of 90 per cent grant and 10 per cent loan, unlike non-special category states, which get central aid in the ratio of 30 per cent grant and 70 per cent loan.

According to the CAG, the social indicators like literacy rate and rate of infant mortality at birth indicate that the state has better literacy rate and infant mortality rate than the all-India average.

The percentage of below poverty line (BPL) population in the state is also well below the all-India average.

(Vishal Gulati can be contacted at vishal.g@ians.in)

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