It’s ‘Queen’ against Royal Scion in Mandi Lok Sabha Battle, as BJP’s Kangana Ranaut Looks to Outrun Congress’s Vikramaditya Singh – News18

It's 'Queen' against Royal Scion in Mandi Lok Sabha Battle, as BJP's Kangana Ranaut Looks to Outrun Congress's Vikramaditya Singh - News18
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Mandi, which gets its name from sage Mandavya, is one of the four parliamentary constituencies in Himachal Pradesh, classified as a general category seat. It includes parts of the Chamba and Mandi districts, and the entire districts of Kinnaur, Kullu, and Lahaul and Spiti, along with parts of the Shimla district. The constituency comprises the following 17 assembly segments: Bharmour (ST) in Chamba, Lahaul & Spiti (ST) in Lahaul and Spiti, Manali, Kullu, Banjar, and Anni (SC) in Kullu, Karsog (SC), Sundernagar, Nachan (SC), Seraj, Darang, Jogindernagar, Mandi, Balh (SC), and Sarkaghat in Mandi, Rampur (SC) in Shimla, and Kinnaur (ST) in Kinnaur.

Pratibha Singh of the Congress who won a 2021 bypoll is the incumbent here and was preceded by Ram Swaroop Sharma of the Bharatiya Janata Party who bagged the seat in 2014.

The two key candidates for the polls to be held in Mandi on June 1 in the seventh and final phase of the Lok Sabha elections are BJP’s Kangana Ranaut and Vikramaditya Singh of the Congress.

Political dynamics

Well-heeled Candidates: Two of the richest candidates in Himachal Pradesh are fighting out in the Mandi Lok Sabha seat, with Bollywood actress Kangana Ranaut from the BJP revealing a net worth of about 91 crore rupees and the royal face Vikramaditya Singh with assets worth 100.51 crore rupees.

Traditionally, the Congress party has dominated the seat of Mandi, with the late Virbhadra Singh representing it thrice, and Pratibha Singh winning three times including two bypolls. The BJP’s Maheshwar Singh first bagged the seat in 1989, and then served between 1998 and 2004, followed by Ram Swaroop Sharma who led from 2014 until his demise in 2021.

In the 2019 Lok Sabha election, Ram Swaroop Sharma bagged a second term with a massive lead of 4.05 lakh votes, up from less than 40,000 in 2014. After his demise in 2021, Mandi witnessed a bypoll where Pratibha Singh, widow of former chief minister Virbhadra Singh, secured the seat with a narrow margin of 7,490 votes.

In the 2022 assembly polls, the BJP scored a dominating 47.6% of the vote share, bagging twelve seats out of seventeen, while the Congress netted the rest of five seats with a vote share of 39.2%.

BJP in Pole Position: The BJP finds itself in a dominant position, with twelve out of seventeen assembly seats in Mandi in its kitty. Having nominated the outspoken ‘Queen’ actress to take on the Congress, the BJP is running a fiery campaign for the seat of Mandi.

Ranaut comes from a Rajput family and was born in the small town of Surajpur in the Mandi constituency. While she is no outsider, she faces accusations from her opponent of being unfamiliar with the woes of Mandi. However, she has raised several local issues in her campaign trail, connecting with Hindu, tribal, and especially women voters, being the first-ever female candidate fielded by the BJP here. When it comes to her celebrity status, Ranaut is a household name owing to her political statements spanning the last many years, her attacks against the Bollywood elite and “nepotism” in the industry coupled with pro-BJP and pro-Hindutva rhetoric, have kept her in the limelight for quite some time. For this reason, she commands considerable visibility and has a major fan following among the youth.

She has accused chief Minister Sukhvinder Singh Sukhu of making “anti-Mandi decisions”, such as halting the Rs 250-crore Shiv Dham project, reducing the jurisdiction of Mandi University, and sidelining the Sundernagar airfield project. Leveraging her celebrity status, Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s influence, and the Ayodhya Ram temple issue, Kangana’s primary objectives include restarting all the stalled projects, enhancing connectivity to remote tribal areas, and promoting local cuisines.

Interestingly, Kangana has garnered support from unlikely quarters involving various influential figures. These include former MP Maheshwar Singh, the scion of Kullu, who had sought a BJP ticket from Mandi; Aashray Sharma, former union minister Sukh Ram’s grandson who lost to BJP’s Ram Swaroop Sharma in the 2019 Lok Sabha elections; and Thakur, a Kargil hero who narrowly lost to Congress’s Pratibha Singh in the 2021 parliamentary by-election.

Kangana Ranaut has a solid edge against her opponent, especially in the lower Mandi area, comprising eleven assembly seats— Banjar, Anni, Karsog, Sundernagar, Nachan, Seraj, Darang, Jogindernagar, Mandi, Balh, and Sarkaghat. While upper Mandi, comprising Bharmour, Lahaul & Spiti, Manali, Kullu, Rampur, and Kinnaur, has traditionally been a bastion of the Congress, the BJP’s prospects appear formidable even in this region.

To her disadvantage, however, the Bollywood star has an uphill task when it comes to proving her rootedness as opposed to her royal opponent who has been involved in election campaigns for years for his family. When it comes to traditions, people are still drawn to the ruling family from Rampur, giving Vikramaditya Singh an advantage in that realm. Ranaut also faces the question of whether she will continue to be in Bollywood in case she secures the seat.

Moreover, in the heated war of words with her opponent, Kangana has been tagged as “someone who has eaten beef”, which is said to be a deal-breaker for many Hindu voters. In response to Kangana’s temple run recently, the Congress’s Vikramaditya Singh pointed out her alleged “eating habits” and called for temples to be cleaned, saying that this is what people who want to protect the temple deities want. Ranaut has refuted these allegations and has been hitting out at her opponent, saying that Singh is out on bail and that the Congress is a party of “thieves” and “corrupt people”. She also called on voters to burn down the “Khooni panja” and use its ashes to clean the state in reference to the Congress’s hand symbol in a social media post.

In this constituency, the Narendra Modi factor remains prevalent, bolstered by welfare schemes and Hindutva. With a large religious population, the establishment of the Ram Mandir has struck a chord with voters. Moreover, the Modi government’s stand on national security and the removal of Article 370 in neighbouring Jammu and Kashmir has kept the BJP in a favourable position even though it faced a setback in the 2022 assembly elections in the state. Despite that, Mandi remains a stronghold of the party.

Congress’s Royal Face: The Congress has nominated Vikramaditya Singh, the heir of the Rampur royal family and son of six-time chief minister Virbhadra Singh. After his father’s demise, he was crowned the titular king of the formerly existing princely state of Bushahr in Rampur. Singh is a two-time MLA, currently serving from the Shimla Rural constituency, and holds the ministries of PWD, youth services & sports, and urban development in the Sukhvinder Singh Sukhu government.

35-year-old Vikramaditya Singh is counting on the legacy of his father, Virbhadra Singh, and state Congress chief Pratibha Singh, the current MP from Mandi, to secure his victory. He holds a notable advantage in upper Mandi. When he filed his nomination papers, a large crowd from upper Mandi came out in support.

In the history of Mandi’s parliamentary elections, including two by-elections since 1952, the Congress has triumphed thirteen times. Both Virbhadra Singh and Pratibha Singh have each won three times. Additionally, members of the former princely states have claimed victory in Mandi 13 times, compared to six wins by “non-royals”. In this election, Vikramaditya must demonstrate that the influence of the Rampur royal family remains strong in this constituency.

Though incumbent MP Pratibha Singh, Vikramaditya’s mother, won the seat in 2021 with a razor-thin margin, her victory was largely attributed to the sympathy wave that emerged after the passing of her husband, six-time CM Virbhadra Singh. That is no longer a factor in this election.

While the leader has shot several salvos at his celebrity opponent, he faces questions with regard to several stalled projects under the Congress government in the state. Kangana has been vehemently criticising the state Congress government for halting the Rs 250-crore Shiv Dham Project, delaying the Mandi airport project, attempting to shut down Mandi University, and closing approximately 1,000 health, education, revenue, and other facilities. She has also asked where Vikramaditya was when such decisions were being made.

Most recently, Singh accused the BJP of planning to do away with the Old Pension Scheme if it comes to power again in the state. He called on state government employees to note that the BJP may denotify the policy on the first day of forming a government. The OPS was a major poll plank on which it is said that Congress managed to bounce back to power. Singh appears to seek replication of political conditions witnessed in 2022 in this Lok Sabha election, though it remains to be seen whether a state-level issue can play a larger role in general elections.

Ultimately, the Congress has an electoral edge in the upper Mandi region. It hopes that despite a perceptible split in Rajput votes, the majority should fall in its kitty owing to the candidate’s royal status and the fact that he is the son of CM Virbhadra Singh.

Key issues

Seepage: The lack of sewerage connectivity, water seeping into houses, poor drainage systems along the link roads leading to residential colonies, and bad road conditions have made life difficult for residents in the region. According to reports, houses in the Sanyard area are troubled due to water seepage. The seepage started at the backside of their homes. Despite several pleas to the municipal corporation and Jal Shakti department, a concrete solution is yet to come. Last year, several homes were damaged in the Sanyard ward and Tarna area because of land subsidence. The water supply line of the Jal Shakti department, which provides 24-hour supply in the town, is the source of seepage. Under the new water supply scheme providing a 24-hour supply to the town, water was coming through old pipes. This could be the reason behind seepage as old pipes might have decayed with time.

Sewage: Lack of sewerage connectivity is a major issue in the region. Due to the incomplete sewerage network in the area, a large number of houses were deprived of the facility. House owners use personal sewerage tanks for the purpose. These tanks sometimes overflow, leading to a foul smell in the area. Thus, there is an urgent need to connect each household with the sewerage. The roads in the region also lack proper drainage which leads to stagnation of water and water-logging in the monsoons. This leads to infestation of mosquitoes and diseases.

Unregulated Construction: Unregulated construction is another major issue. There is an urgent need to regularise constructions under a one-time settlement policy. Five-storey houses have been built in the area and haphazard construction has become a major cause of concern. The people have demanded strict implementation of the Town and Country Planning Act to ensure the regulated development of structures.

Roads: Roads in the region are in bad condition. There are several potholes on the roads which lead to discomfort and cause problems for commuters. There is also the issue of construction and reconstruction of roads every time a pipeline needs to be laid, or electric wires have to be laid underground or removed. It also leads to massive traffic congestion, while construction and encroachments add to the pressure. There is also the issue of parking in the region. There are no designated parking spaces which forces people to park on the side of the streets, adding to the street congestion. People have also been demanding to connect the Sanyard with the sub-post office at Jail Road, which is nearby, but to no avail.

Farmer Issues: Incessant rainfall and floods are major causes of crop failure in Mandi. Last year, incessant rains and subsequent floods caused complete devastation of the farmlands including the accumulation of silt and debris over the fertile soil. This caused the farmers to spend more money to clear up the debris and desilt the soil to ensure fertility. Crop failure also leads to economic turmoil and an increasing debt burden on the farmers, which can be exacerbated due to delayed compensation. In addition, farmers fear that the new greenfield airport in Mandi can disrupt the ecological balance and pose a risk to the limited fertile land in the area.

Voter demographics (2011 Census)

  • Total voters (2019): 1281462
  • Urban: 6.9%
  • Rural: 93.1%
  • SC: 27.8%
  • ST: 9.5%
  • Hindu: ~92%
  • Sikh: 0.38%
  • Muslim: 1.4%
  • Buddhist: 5.86%
  • Literacy: 71.27%

Infrastructure development

Greenfield Mandi Airport: It is a proposed airport to be built in Mandi. First-stage clearance of the site to the government of Himachal Pradesh for the development of the airport was given in 2022. It will be built at a cost of Rs 5,248.48 crore.

Nerchowk-Pandoh Road: The 26-km-long Nerchowk-Pandoh including the Pandoh bypass section of the NH-21 will improve the connectivity for travellers from Chandigarh to the valleys of Kullu and Manali. It is being upgraded to a four-lane road.

Health Infrastructure: In 2021, four new medical colleges were sanctioned in Hamirpur, Mandi, Chamba, and Sirmaur by the central government. In February this year, PM Modi inaugurated and virtually laid the foundation stones of three critical care medical blocks to be built in Una district, Tanda in Kangra, and Nerchowk Medical College in Mandi district. Each block will have a six-floor building with a 50-bed facility to be built at a cost of Rs 17.36 crore each.

Other Infrastructure: Four infrastructure projects are underway, including the construction of a ropeway, slope protection works along a four-kilometre stretch of National Highway 22, a 500-metre artificial tunnel on National Highway 5, and a 410-metre two-lane road under bridge on National Highway 503. Upon completion, these projects will reduce the distance between Hamirpur and Mandi by 15 km and improve connectivity to areas like Tauni Devi, Awahdevi, Sarkaghat, and Dharampur.

Railway Infrastructure: The platform surface at Joginder Nagar railway station was improved, the drainage network at Baijnath Mandir Halt station was enhanced, and a 1,500-m corroded pipeline was replaced to improve water supply. A platform shelter was provided at Palampur railway station, and work was underway to provide a platform shelter at Chauntra Bahetre Halt station. A ramp for Divyaang Jan was constructed at Joginder Nagar station, free Wi-Fi and clock facilities were provided at Joginder Nagar and Ahju railway stations, and a new public toilet was constructed at Ahju railway station. The platform surface at Ahju station was also improved.

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