Himachal Pradesh's four parliamentary seats -- Mandi, Hamirpur, Kangra and Shimla -- that vote in the seventh and final phase of polling for the Lok Sabha elections on Sunday, have become a high-stakes battle for the BJP's star campaigner and first-time Chief Minister Jai Ram Thakur.With the electorate, traditionally in the Lok Sabha polls, favouring the party at the helm in the state, these elections are being seen as a referendum on Himachal Pradesh's 17-month- old BJP government.The BJP wrested Himachal Pradesh from the Congress in December 2017, winning 44 seats in the 68-member Assembly. The Congress won 21 seats, independents two and the Communist Party of India-Marxist one.While in Mandi, Kangra and Shimla, it's about steering his party to victory, in Hamirpur it's a battle of supremacy between the Chief Minister and his two-time predecessor Prem Kumar Dhumal, who has almost been marginalised in state politics after a humiliating defeat in the 2017 Assembly polls. From Kangra, the largest Lok Sabha constituency in the state in terms of voters, the BJP has fielded Cabinet Minister Kishan Kapoor, 68, after dropping veteran leader Shanta Kumar, against Congress two-time legislator Pawan Kajal, 44.In the Shimla (reserved) seat, it is an ex-serviceman versus an ex-serviceman. Retired Colonel Dhani Ram Shandil, 78, is the Congress candidate against Bharatiya Janata Party nominee and former Indian Air Force (IAF) officer Suresh Kashyap, 48.In Hamirpur, Dhumal is trying to ensure a fourth term for his son Anurag Thakur, former president state and national cricket bodies.
Pitted against Anurag Thakur, 44, is ex-wrestler and five-time Congress legislator Ram Lal Thakur.Sitting BJP MP and the Chief Minister's confidante Ram Swaroop Sharma is seeking a second term from Mandi. He is contesting against Congress greenhorn Ashray Sharma, who is the grandson of former Telecom Minister Sukh Ram.Sukh Ram, a Congress veteran joined the BJP just before the Assembly elections, but defected back after his grandson was denied a ticket. Ashray's father Anil Sharma still remains in the saffron party and though he has not campaigned either for his son or for his party in these elections, his father is more than making up for it. At 91, he is the oldest campaigner in the Lok Sabha elections in Himachal Pradesh. Playing the emotional card, he often breaks down on stage and tells the voters: "My son and Ashray's father Anil Sharma could not attend the rally, but his blessings are always with him."Six-time former Chief Minister Virbhadra Singh joined the high-decibel campaign for Ashray this week. Though a little late in the day, the Congress veteran asked Anil Sharma to join his son's campaign.Seraj, the Chief Minister's Assembly constituency, falls in Mandi which was once a Congress stronghold. It is also the lone seat where the Communist Party of India (Marxist) is also in the fray. "It is a do-or-die battle for Jai Ram Thakur to retain the Mandi seat and that too with the highest margin in the state," a senior BJP leader told IANS.He said the Chief Minister was devoting most of his time and energy to Mandi in comparison to the three other seats in the state to ensure the maximum lead.Political observers say that while the Congress is raking up local issues and banking on the anti-incumbency of the BJP MPs, the saffron party is banking completely on the Modi factor.The Chief Minister however, denies any anti-incumbency. "There is more zeal this time to win with bigger margins and Prime Minister Modi's name alone will win the Lok Sabha elections. All the other issues are secondary," he told IANS.