When the race for the Lok Sabha polls began in the hill state of Himachal Pradesh, the general perception was that the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) would whitewash the Congress as it had done in 2014.
But as the campaign progressed the scenario changed drastically and the Congress is giving the BJP a run for its money on all the four seats. While the grand old party has nothing to lose, there are lots at stake for the BJP even as its internal equations are set to be redefined after the polls.
BJP candidates have faded into the background and the party is seeking votes in the name of Prime Minister Narendra Modi and his brand of nationalism. The BJP candidates are either facing anti incumbency or lack the personal connect compelling the party to solely rely on Modi’s face and name. Modi has worked as the BJP’s state in-charge and has quite often harped on his personal connect with the state.
The party had won all the four seats in 2014 polls and had given a drubbing to the Congress even in the assembly polls in 2017. After the 2017 assembly polls there was a major change when the party appointed Jai Ram Thakur as the chief minister since the former chief minister Prem Kumar Dhumal lost the election.
With Jai Ram Thakur in the driving seat it tried to give a message of freshness to the people of the state coming out with new promises. Hence in a way this Lok Sabha polls are also a kind of a mini referendum on the functioning of the Jai Ram Thakur government.
The BJP is trying to play up the hyper nationalism card with continuous references to Pulwama terror attack and the Balakot air strikes. It is also trying to convince the people that a Double Engine (same party governments) at the centre and in the state would work best for them.
But although Himachal Pradesh sends a high percentage of manpower to defence and para military forces, families with members in the armed forces are not falling for the bait. They say that none of the families with their wards in the forces would want a war and casualties.
When it comes to the contests Mandi is the most interesting seat to watch out for. It all started with the return of the grand old politician Sukh Ram to the Congress and securing the party ticket for his grandson Ashray Sharma. On the eve of the 2017 assembly polls, Sukh Ram had switched over to the BJP along with his son Anil Sharma seeking a ticket for the latter from the saffron party. Anil had gone on to win and became the power minister. But his ministerial berth was lost when Ashray became the Congress candidate. Anil remains a BJP MLA for now and has not campaigned.
Former union telecom minister Sukh Ram remains a very popular figure in the area even at the age of 92 years. Mandi is the second largest constituency in India that covers the districts of Mandi, Kinnaur, Lahaul and Spiti, Kullu besides parts of Chamba and Shimla districts. The terrain is difficult and it is here that Sukh Ram needs the help of his bête noire and former chief minister Virbhadra Singh who has a pan Himachal following and is particularly influential in the constituency.
Ashray is pitted against Ram Swarup Sharma who had shot into limelight after winning against the Congress heavyweight Pratibha Singh in 2014. But since Mandi is the home turf of Jai Ram Thakur it is the latter’s popularity at stake here as he faces the first litmus test after taking over as the chief minister.
Then there is the presence of the CPM candidate Dalip Singh Kayath that gives a new dimension to the contest. The constituency has certain pockets that have a strong Left base.
The second key contest is in Hamirpur where three-time winner Lok Sabha poll winner Anurag Thakur is pitted against five time MLA and three time state minister Ram Lal Thakur. While their home turf of Hamirpur has been nurtured well by Anurag and his father Prem Kumar Dhumal who is the former chief minister, it is Ram Lal who has the edge in Bilaspur district that forms a part of the constituency along with Una district and parts of Kangra district.
The BJP is heavily banking on Modi effect in this constituency from where there are several top leaders of both the parties. Apart from Anurag and Dhumal, the other powerful leaders from this constituency are union minister Jagat Prakash Nadda and state BJP chief Sat Pal Satti while leader of opposition Mukesh Agnihotri and former Congress chief Sukhvinder Singh Sukhu are also from here.
On the Shimla reserved seat the contest is between former state minister Colonel (Retired) Dhani Ram Shandil of the Congress and Suresh Kashyap of the BJP. The Congress is pretty confident on this seat as it has been the home turf of former chief ministers YS Parmar, Thakur Ram Lal and Virbhadra Singh. While Shandil is from Solan, Kashyap is the sitting MLA from Sirmaur district.
The contest on the Kangra seat is between Kishan Kapoor who is a cabinet minister in the present state government and a sitting MLA from the Congress Pawan Kajal. Kapoor was given the ticket after the BJP decided not to field party veteran Shanta Kumar. Kajal was also formerly with the BJP till 2012. Both he and Kapoor have politically grown under the wings of Shanta Kumar. Locals are attributing this as the reason for Shanta refraining from attacking Kajal.