STATES: HIMACHAL PRADESH
Blame It On The House
The stillborn rebellion in the state BJP jolts Dhumal, but the party still wins panchayat and zila parishad elections handsomely
By Ramesh Vinayak
One of the enduring ghost tales in Shimla is about Oakover, the official residence of the chief minister of Himachal Pradesh. The jinxed reputation of this majestic bungalow on the picturesque Mall draws on the fact - or coincidence - that none of its occupants since the state was born in 1966 has ever completed a full term in office. Three years ago, Prem Kumar Dhumal had reluctantly moved into Oakover, but only after elaborate religious rites. He even built a temple to ward off the curse.
Last month, however, just when the BJP-led coalition Government was about to celebrate 1,000 days in office, it appeared that all his oblations had been in vain. The jinx returned to haunt Dhumal in the form of an ominous revolt by half a dozen ministers and MLAs. And though the crisis blew over, Dhumal, ruling with a wafer-thin majority, has since requisitioned Vaastu Shastra experts to make changes in the interiors of the palatial building.
Right now, it is his political acumen and shrewd statecraft that is helping Dhumal beat the Oakover jinx. Mid-December, despite ugly internal bickering in the party, the BJP put up an impressive performance in the state-wide elections to gram panchayats and zila parishads, even making inroads at the grassroots level in Congress bastions.
In fact, among the six states with BJP-led governments, Himachal is an exception in that the party high command can draw some solace from it. Only in the hill state has the BJP been able to survive the anti-incumbency ire and debilitating internal feuds. Dhumal's achievement is significant considering that he took over as an underdog chief minister heading a wobbly coalition. A combination of hands-on governance and the assiduously cultivated image of the common man's chief minister along with his easy accessibility have given Dhumal the image of a quiet doer. He has shrewdly checkmated the black-mailing capacity of the scam-tainted former Union telecommunications minister Sukh Ram, whose five-MLA Himachal Vikas Congress (HVC) had provided the crucial prop to the BJP to pip the Congress to the post in the scramble for power in the evenly split Assembly. Reduced now to two legislators including himself, Ram, once brazen in extracting a price for his support to the Dhumal Government, is a mere coalition appendage.
His critics say part of Dhumal's success is because the chief minister is shy of taking hard decisions that could invite public ire. He is accused of running the government through compromises. A couple of policy decisions-such as the creation of new development blocks, privatisation of four government hospitals and the shifting of seven public-sector units from Shimla-were reversed by the chief minister soon after he sensed their negative political fall out. "This is a rollback regime," charges Virbhadra Singh, former Congress chief minister of the state.
Obviously, Dhumal is aware it was unpopular decisions that led to the defeat of the BJP government headed by Shanta Kumar in the 1993 assembly polls. One area where he has been consistent-and controversial-is administration transfers. His 33 months in power have seen as many as 60 bureaucratic reshuffles. While Dhumal insists that these were mostly necessitated by deputation postings, his opponents say they betrayed his uneasiness and lack of grip on the administration.
What makes up for his administrative flip-flops are his dogged efforts aimed at time-bound development. He has given priority to small and low-cost plan schemes such as link roads, schools, irrigation and water supply schemes which are implementable in a short time span and make an immediate impact at the grassroots level. Dhumal's novel idea of introducing efficiency incentives for government officials executing development works within the stipulated time and cost forms the key to his blueprint for the remaining two years.
But he has erred elsewhere. Instead of tackling the endemic financial crunch, Dhumal has taken to the convenient way of borrowing to keep up the tempo of development. Though the Rs 700 crore financial package by Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee was a temporary bail-out returnable with interest, Dhumal has been able to use his good rapport with the Centre to get hydel projects and four national highways for the state which got three in the past 50 years.
What has bolstered Dhumal's report card is his decisive push to hydel power generation, a sector in which the state has a potential of 20,000 MW but has tapped only 3,800 MW. In the past two years, the Dhumal Government has moved swiftly, clearing the decks for several projects totalling 6,100 MW, including the 2,150 MW Parbati project-all of which had been hanging fire for long. By 2010, Himachal Pradesh is expected to be a "power state" generating 10,000 MW. If that happens, it could be the panacea for the state's financial woes.
For the time being, Dhumal is firmly in the saddle. But his truce with the rebels, now a definable pressure group, remains tenuous. Shanta Kumar loyalists still nurse the grouse of not being given their due in power and in the party. The wrangling within the BJP even prompted the Congress to move a no-confidence motion in the winter session.
Luckily for Dhumal, the Congress is too bogged down by infighting, which touched a new high during the recent organisational elections. "There is lot of bad blood and the party stands demoralised," admits Singh. Dhumal's performance coupled with the Congress' woes might just help him exorcise the jinx of Oakover.