As the incumbent Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) gears up to fight its big electoral battle across 68 constituencies of Himachal Pradesh on November 12, it will also seek to claim power over the hot seat of Palampur — that it has won just once in the last three decades.
Flanked by the mighty Dhauladhars, the hill station located in the politically significant district of Kangra has remained a Congress stronghold since 1985 when it fielded senior party leader and famous tea-grower Brij Bihari Lal Butail from the constituency. The five-time MLA from Palampur and former Vidhan Sabha Speaker continued his winning streak from 1993 to 2017 when he eventually retired. The streak was broken only once in 2007 when BJP’s Praveen Kumar emerged victorious. In the previous elections held in 2017, Butail’s son Ashish Butail contested his first election and the family won the people’s mandate yet again.
A battle of legacy
However, this time, Palampur will witness a triangular contest with Congress MLA Ashish Butail, BJP candidate Trilok Kapoor, and Sanjay Bhardwaj from the new-entrant Aam Aadmi Party (AAP). In the past week, several national leaders have landed in the hill town to win voters’ approval.
Ashish Butail is confident of repeating the 2017 result when he defeated BJP’s Indu Goswami by 4,324 votes. He is also buoyed by the party’s recent success in the municipal corporation (MC) polls when the Congress won 11 of the 15 seats. Another impetus came from Congress leader Priyanka Gandhi Vadra’s rally in the neighbouring constituency of Nagrota Bagwan, followed by a visit of the party’s Rajasthan MLA Sachin Pilot.
While the Congress is banking on the people’s continued trust in the Butail family, the local BJP unit is invoking the legacy of its senior leaders including former Himachal chief minister Shanta Kumar who was Palampur MLA in 1990.
The party has fielded its state general secretary and chairman of the State Wool Federation Trilok Kapoor, who is fighting his first assembly election on the promise of addressing local issues — upgradation to municipal corporation, employment opportunities, and strengthening local tourism. “The local unit was slightly segmented before. But we saw in 2007, that every time the party has fought the election in unity, it has won. Before that too, former CM Shanta Kumar (ji) and Chaudhary Sarwan Kumar (ji) have remained MLAs from here,” says Kapoor on the sidelines of a rally. “This time, we are fighting as one unit, and we will emerge victorious.”
Palampur is crucial for everyone, as one of the 15 seats in Kangra — one of the largest districts which is said to lead the way for any party to form its next government in the state. From Uttar Pradesh chief minister Yogi Adityanath to union home minister Amit Shah, the BJP is making all efforts to gain voters’ confidence. In fact, Shah ended the state poll campaign with a public rally in Palampur on Wednesday.
AAP, which otherwise has been losing steam in the state, has injected enthusiasm into its local campaign, with a roadshow by Delhi deputy chief minister Manish Sisodia a few days before the polls. The party is urging voters to give it one chance to govern the state, citing the example of neighbouring Punjab.
Bringing tourists back to Palampur
Among the many issues dominating the polls in this quaint little town most known for its expansive tea gardens is tourism. The candidates have promised to bring tourists back to the hill station, and boost employment opportunities for the local youth. “Tourists only come to visit Dharamshala and McLeodganj and return from there. We want to invite them to Palampur and give them a glimpse of the majestic Dhauladhars,” BJP candidate Kapoor tells voters during a public meeting in village Banuri.
Among the main projects being used to woo the voters is the 13.5-km ropeway connecting Palampur to Chunja Glacier on the mighty Dhauladhars. Said to be the dream project of former Himachal Pradesh CM Shanta Kumar, it has been hanging fire ever since it was announced in 1990, because of environment clearances, as the area has large reserved forests.
However, last year union transport minister Nitin Gadkari set the ball rolling on the Rs 650-crore project through the National Highways Authority of India (NHAI). The plan is to build a 13.5-km-long ropeway between Palampur, Thathri, and Chuna Glacier on the Dhauladhars at a height of about 12,000 ft above sea level.
Himachal is set to vote on November 12, and the results would be declared on December 8.
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