It’s a neck-and-neck battle between the Congress and BJP in Himachal Pradesh, said various exit polls on Tuesday as voting officially came to an end in the assembly elections after the Phase-2 in Gujarat concluded.

In Himachal Pradesh, the exit polls projected a range of 24-41 seats for the BJP and 20-40 seats for the Congress. The majority mark is 35 seats.

But while a saffron wave is predicted in Gujarat, why are the exit polls predicting an ‘unpredictable’ picture for the hill state? News18 explains:

First, What All Did the Exit Polls Say About Himachal?

For Himachal Pradesh, Aaj Tak-Axis My India predicted a close contest between the Congress and the BJP. It said the BJP would get 24-34 seats and the Congress 30-40 seats.

News 24-Today’s Chanakya also pointed to a cliffhanger in Himachal Pradesh, predicting 33 seats for both the BJP and the Congress with a margin of plus-minus seven seats for both.

While ABP News C-Voter said the BJP was likely to get 33-41 seats and Congress 24-32, India TV predicted that the BJP would bag 35-40 seats, Congress 26-31 and AAP zero.

News X-Jan Ki Baat survey said the BJP was likely to get 32-40 seats in the hill state, Congress 27-34 and AAP zero.

While Republic TV P-MARQ predicted that the BJP would get 34-39, Congress 28-33 and AAP 0-1, the Times Now-ETG said the average seats BJP was likely to get was 38 and the Congress 28.

According to Zee News-BARC, BJP was expected to get 35-40 in Himachal Pradesh while Congress was likely to bag 20-25.

Himachal’s ‘Riwaaj’ May Give Explanation

Despite the complicated political equations we will discuss later in these questions, one of the most talked-about Himachal trends is its ‘anti-incumbency’ Riwaaj.

The ‘Devbhoomi’ has not had a repeat government since 1985.

Himachal Pradesh has been a swing state for the Bharatiya Janata Party and the Indian National Congress for the last three decades. Both parties have received roughly 40% of the stable vote share on a consistent basis (except in the 2019 Lok Sabha polls when the Congress vote share was reduced to 27 per cent). The results were always neck and neck.

While the massive voteshare disparity between the Congress and BJP suggests a favorable’saffron outcome,’ past electoral trends at the BJP’s performance in the state’s bypolls held in 2021 show that Himachal may be an unpredictable outcome to predict. In 2021, by-elections were held for three assembly seats: Arki, Fatehpur, and Jubbal-Kotkhai, as well as the Mandi Lok Sabha seat. All four seats were taken by Congress. In 2021 by-elections in Fatehpur, Arki, and Jubbal-Kotkhai, the BJP received 42, 24, and 54% of the vote, respectively, compared to the 2019 Lok Sabha elections. At the same time, Congress received 21, 26, and 3% of the vote in these assemblies, according to an India Today report.

Old Pension Scheme

The old pension scheme also became a poll plank in the hill state. The Congress’ campaign promise to reinstate the Old Pension Scheme had political analysts wondering whether the promise would hurt the BJP’s performance.

The Aam Aadmi Party had also jumped on board, promising to implement OPS if the party is elected to power. While the state’s ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) made no promises, it had stated that it will proceed based on the report of the panel appointed by the Jai Ram Thakur-led government.

HOW IS OPS AND NPS DIFFERENT & Why is it a Poll Plank?

OLD PENSION SCHEME (OPS)

• Employees in the OPS receive 50 per cent of their last drawn basic pay plus dearness allowance or their average earnings in the last ten months of service, whichever is greater. The employee must complete a ten-year service requirement, explained a report by Mint.

• Employees are not required to contribute to their pensions under OPS. The guarantee of a post-retirement pension and a family pension was an incentive for taking on government employment. There was no pressure to build a retirement fund. Because of rising life expectancy, OPS has become unsustainable for governments.

NEW PENSION SCHEME (NPS)

• Those employed by the government contribute 10% of their basic salary to their pension under NPS, while their employers contribute up to 14%. Employees in the private sector can also participate in the NPS voluntarily, though some rules have changed.

• The customer has much more flexibility and a greater sense of control over her fate with NPS. Regardless of equity or debt, a professional pension fund manager can ensure superior returns and a larger retirement corpus. The Mint report further explains that unlike defined benefit plans, NPS is a defined contribution plan. If you have no appetite for risk, the guaranteed payout feature in OPS is undeniably appealing.

WHY IS NPS OPPOSED?

The opposition can be explained by the points stated in a letter recently shot off the Cabinet Secretary by the federation of Central Government Employees’ Unions, which has called it a disaster for old and retiring employees.

According to the federation, a Defence establishment official who retired recently after more than 13 years of service received only 15% of the assured pension he would have received under the OPS.

The official with a basic pay of Rs 30,500 received a monthly pension of Rs 2,417 under the NPS, as opposed to the Rs 15,250 pension he would have received under the OPS.

Another official with a base salary of Rs 34,300 received a monthly pension of Rs 2,506 after more than 15 years of service, whereas under the OPS, he would have been entitled to a pension of Rs 17,150.

AND WHY HIMACHAL HAS SPECIAL STAKE IN THIS PROBLEM

Himachal Pradesh has approximately 2.5 lakh government employees.Another 1.90 lakh employees are now retired and receiving pensions. According to Newslaundry, despite the fact that only 55 lakh voters decide the fate of political parties, these active and retired government employees, along with their dependents, form a strong voter base.

The Himachal New Pension Scheme Employees Association (NPSEA), an organisation formed in 2015 to demand the return of the OPS, has mobilised people on the ground and is raising awareness of the issue through its social media platforms. Bharat Sharma, general secretary of the NPSEA, said the restoration of OPS is a major political issue in the hill state.

Apple Farming Also an Issue

Horticulturists say rising input costs due to higher prices of fertiliser, pesticides and reduced government support have made apple farming a loss-making venture. The Kullu region, the economy of which is dependent on tourism and horticulture, has four assembly seats of Manali, Kullu Sadar, Banjar and Anni.

“Apple growers are unhappy here as rates have fallen to the level of 2012 and 2013. This issue is going to impact elections in all the four seats in this apple belt,” Naresh Chaudhary, an apple grower in Manali, told PTI.

Apple growers here are also not happy with the ruling BJP over the hike in GST on the packaging and other input materials. “Carton rates were increased just ahead of the apple marketing season which hit our income,” Chaudhary said.

Another apple grower Durga Singh from Kullu said the ruling government had promised to open cold storage facilities in this region but did not fulfil it. “I think issues over apple rates and falling income and GST on packaging material will impact the prospects of the BJP in the four seats here,” Singh said.

BJP’s Strength Lies in Female Voters

The BJP has counted on female voters’ support and Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s charisma to cut its losses in the state, where anti-incumbency has claimed every government so far. Given his continued popularity in the state, the Prime Minister in a Himachali topi is prominently displayed on every BJP billboard in the state.

Despite being troubled by inflation, News18 found out that women in Himachal Pradesh do not appear to be abandoning the BJP. According to a couple of women buying vegetables in Solan, the BJP has done a lot for women. “We don’t believe this promise to deposit funds into our bank account” (Rs 1,500 promise for women by the Congress). Parties continue to make false promises. Our children desire government jobs based on their qualifications. Pensions are no longer available. “The BJP should fix this,” the women argue.

With inputs from PTI

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