With OPS, Congress taps into Himachali sentiments

Congress general secretary Priyanka Gandhi-Vadra interacts with employees during their protest to demand the old pension scheme in Solan, Himachal Pradesh on October 14, 2022. Chhattisgarh Chief Minister Bhupesh Baghel (left) looks on. Photo: Twitter/@INCHimachal via PTI

​The Old Pension Scheme became a contentious issue before the Himachal Pradesh elections, as the Congress which had already introduced the scheme in Rajasthan, Jharkhand and Chhattisgarh, promised to do the same if it won in the State. The poll promises undoubtedly struck a chord with the people of the hill State.

The OPS, under which the entirety of the pension was paid by the government, was discontinued in 2004 and replaced by the new pension scheme under which employees contribute 10% of their basic salary to their pension, while employers contribute 14%. Around 1.5 lakh employees in Himachal Pradesh are covered under the new pension scheme and ever since its introduction, there had been widespread protests calling for the restoration of the old scheme.

Data from Lokniti-CSDS post-poll study found that a staggering three-fourths of the voters (74%) in the State were aware of this electoral promise made by the Congress. Not only were the voters aware of the scheme but support for it was also quite high. Among those who were aware of the promise, an overwhelming 70% supported the restoration of the OPS (Table 1).

This support somewhat translated into votes as 65% of those who were in full support of Congress’ Old Pension Scheme voted for the party (Table 2). However, the party did not find the same support among those who partially supported the scheme, with only three in ten supporting it and over half the voters supporting the BJP. Considering that half the voters fully support this scheme, these figures for Congress support becomes all the more significant.

Anger over Agniveer

Another burning issue in the Himachal Pradesh elections was the newly introduced Agniveer scheme under which soldiers would be recruited into the armed forces on a contractual basis for a period of four years. The scheme, which was announced in 2022, led to violent protests across North India, including Himachal Pradesh, as a large number of youth from the State join the army every year.

When asked their opinion on the Agniveer scheme, one in two voters in Himachal said they opposed the army recruitment policy fully or to some extent (Table 3). Only 19% were in full support and 14% gave partial support to this scheme. Among those who fully opposed the scheme, 55% voted for the Congress. While among those in partial support, the vote was divided equally among the BJP and the Congress (46% each). BJP did have an upper hand among those who fully supported the scheme (six in ten) and those who said they somewhat supported the scheme (55%).

A geographical analysis of the support for the Agniveer scheme found that close to three-fifth (57%) of the western region, which includes the Kangra district, opposed it. This region also has a high number of people in the armed forces. The corresponding figure for the eastern region was 43%.

The most significant criticism of the scheme has been its impact on the career prospects of the youth who will find it difficult to gain employment elsewhere after serving for four years. The findings of the survey also indicate the same as three of five people aged 18-25 disapproved of the scheme.

It is clear from the survey findings that policy missteps from the BJP, which adversely impacted key vote banks significantly, cost the ruling party and ended up benefiting the Congress which somewhat successfully tapped into the issues of the electorate.

(The authors are researchers at Lokniti-CSDS)

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