Rows of large anti-hail nets dot the route to Himachal Pradesh’s Theog. The nets are crucial to apple farming, which is the primary source of livelihood in the region. Since July this year, apple cultivators in the area have been protesting about high input and packaging costs, among other issues.
As a result, pressure has been mounting in the Theog Assembly constituency — part of the Shimla Lok Sabha seat — ahead of the elections, which are likely in November, with every party reaching out to people.
A Congress stronghold, the seat was held by senior party leader Vidya Stokes for five terms until 2012. Her father-in-law Satyanand Stokes had been the first to introduce apple cultivation to the state in the early 1900s. With focus on region-specific issues, Stokes held on to the seat and faced very little competition.
In 2017, when she did not contest the Assembly elections, the CPM’s Rakesh Singha won by a narrow margin of 2,000 votes. Singha is now leading the protests by the apple cultivators.
Since the 2007 delimitation exercise, the areas of Kumarsain, Kotgarh and Narkanda have been part of the Theog constituency. The merger has further ended up consolidating the farmer belt.
Singha has built up a support base by lending his voice to the protests, with the locals of the view that he is an “approachable leader”, just like Stokes was.
“We understand that an MLA who does not come from the ruling party has his hands tied. But it is about presence. There have been several landslides here, and Singha was present. He is also leading the apple protests, which is our rozi-roti (bread and butter) here. This connection with the public goes a long way,” says Ram Lal, a shopkeeper on the Theog-Kumarsain highway.
Others also feel that a long-term solution to the problems plaguing the apple farming community is integral, and in this, the BJP stands a better chance.
“Our produce is not getting sold at the right price. And it is possible that the situation will get worse. We need specific, stringent policies. And the solution needs to be long-term,” a local from Kumarsain says.
Another local, Sonu, adds, “There is inflation everywhere, it is beyond the control of a district leader. There is angst, but the BJP has brought many schemes and changes. Besides, the party has a better organisation. Others have a lot of infighting.”
Since the death of its stalwart Virbhadra Singh, the longest-serving CM of Himachal, the state Congress unit has been ridden with groupism and infighting.
While Theog might view the party with suspicion as a result, given its history of voting for the Congress, many in the party are eyeing it as a safe seat, including reportedly its former state chief Kuldeep Singh Rathore.
Calling himself someone the people trust, Rathore told The Indian Express: “In my tours, I have felt a positive feedback for the party. We have a good chance. I hail from the region and I have people come up to me pledging support.”
Another strong contender for the Congress ticket from Theog will be Indu Verma, the wife of late BJP leader and three-time MLA from the seat Rakesh Verma, who switched to the Congress in July. Verma had defeated the veteran Stokes in 1993, and Indu will hope to coast on his popularity.
A third contender is said to be Deepak Rathore, a youth leader who is known to be close to the party’s leadership in Delhi.
The ruling BJP, which is looking to capitalise on the discontent within the Congress, believes the Communist party is a non-player.
Saying the Congress “is losing the plot”, Himachal BJP vice-president Sanjeev Katwal says not much importance should be given to the 2017 CPM win. “There was voting which led to the CPM victory. This will not be repeated. The government has taken care of the price rise of cartons, which will benefit the apple growers. There are many other policies both at the Central and state levels. The Congress has no unity and it will become evident in the results,” he says.