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Himachal heating up

Himachal heating up

While all eyes are anticipating to witness the outcome of the Gujarat Assembly polls scheduled for December 18 (the home state of Prime Minister Narendra Modi and the BJP chief Amit Shah), the northern mountain state of Himachal Pradesh is no less relevant, politically. If the ruling Congress retains power, it would provide a needed morale boost to the party. If the BJP wins the state, it would mean the winning streak of the BJP continues unabated. The stakes thus are high for both the parties, which have been alternating in power since 1988, in the hill state. It is a direct fight, as there is no third factor like former Telecom Minister, Sukhram Sharma's Himachal Vikas Congress, in 1998 and 2003, and the Bahujan Samaj Party in 2007. In 2012, again, there was the Himachal Lokhit Party, started by former state BJP president Maheshwar Singh.

Unable to field any strong leader to replace the incumbent Chief Minister Virbhadra Singh, the Congress has projected the 83-year-old warhorse as its Chief Ministerial face. He has proved his worth over the past five decades, but, will he still hold sway in the state? Singh is fighting the battle for his survival and also for establishing his son Vikramaditya Singh, who is contesting from Shimla rural.
While the Congress has been concentrating on its re-emergence in Gujarat, Himachal has been left to the mercy of Singh, who is also facing corruption charges in Delhi High Court. The Chief Minister is single-handedly campaigning, conducting 15 to 20 meetings in two to three constituencies, every day. Singh is an octogenarian who is facing strong anti-incumbency. Secondly, the campaign has been very low profile. Thirdly, the senior Congress leaders seem to have given a complete miss to visiting the state. Except for three rallies by Congress Vice-President Rahul Gandhi and frequent visits by former Union minister Anand Sharma, who hails from the state, the campaign has been quite abysmal. The Congress does not even have a war room and Singh is not willing to spend money for a losing state. This has led to Prime Minister Narendra Modi making snide remarks in his campaign rallies (he has already done seven rallies so far): "No senior Congress leader came here to campaign… They have the left the field leaving everything on fate."
The BJP, on the other hand, has nominated former Chief Minister Dhumal, as its CM face, last week. The tilting of the dominant Rajput votes (38 per cent) towards Virbhadra Singh led to a last-minute decision to declare Dhumal as the CM candidate. Dhumal is also in his seventies. He is fighting his battle for survival as he had been sidelined after his defeat in 2012. Interestingly, both Virbhadra Singh and Dhumal are seeking re-election from new seats and that is not going to be easy for either.
With no dearth of funds, the BJP has electrified the campaign, blending in traditional rallies, newspaper advertisements, and spots on radio and television shows as well as a visible social media campaign, to woo the voters. It has several vehicles mounted with huge television screens for campaign and street plays. It is also building an alternative narrative to the Congress poll campaign touting Modi as its mascot.
Personal attacks and negative campaign dominate the elections in Himachal Pradesh. The contenders, who have alternated for two decades in power, have tailored their respective campaigns around the looming corruption scandals against each other. The contest is on the twin poll planks of corruption and development. Both sides have fielded millionaires as data shows that out of the 338 candidates in the fray, 158 (47 per cent) are crorepatis. Dhumal is also battling the party's decision to field more than two dozen candidates with criminal cases. A confident Dhumal believes that the wind is favourable for the BJP. The BJP has also launched the "Hisab Mange Himachal" campaign, in which it is seeking for answers from the Congress MLAs. The BJP is also upbeat because it has won the municipal corporation elections in Shimla, considered to be a stronghold of the Congress, for the first time.
The ruling Congress in Himachal Pradesh has promised many things in its manifesto—promising to strengthen the farm sector by granting interest-free loans to farmers, the creation of 1.50 lakh jobs in the government sector and free laptops to 50,000 college students. The Congress also claims to have fulfilled 95 per cent of its poll promises and said that it would implement the remaining promises along with the fresh promises in the next term if voted to power.
The Congress faces anti-incumbency, internal fights, lack of development and a lack of funds in the state unit of the party. The BJP has promised a 'Gudiya' fund, along the lines of the Nirbhaya Fund.
The BJP has also promised a 24/7 helpline, apart from a safety app and a women's police force. Both parties are, however, silent on the intermittent network connectivity in rural areas.
On balance, it would be the 20th state in the BJP's kitty if it wins this time. Polls are always unpredictable and Himachal Pradesh is no exception. It all depends on whom the dame luck ushers its favours.
(The views expressed are strictly personal.)

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