Despite the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) striving hard to make inroads ahead of the polls slated for the end of this year for the 68-member BJP-ruled assembly, the political scenario in Himachal Pradesh seems so far largely bipolar a tug-of-war between the two conventional archrivals -- the Congress and the saffron party.
Also for the first time, both the BJP with the slogan of 'Mission Repeat' under the name of Prime Minister Narendra Modi, and the Congress are in the fray in the absence of mass leaders.
Virbhadra Singh of the Congress and Prem Kumar Dhumal of the BJP are out of the scene. Singh is dead, while Dhumal is virtually in political exile after his defeat in the previous Assembly polls.
Political observers told IANS that in the absence of mass leaders and despite the AAP stepping up the tempo of electioneering, largely banking on Delhi Chief Minister and its convenor Arvind Kejriwal's magic, the political landscape is divided between the traditional outfits in the small hill state, which sends just four members to the Lok Sabha. Both the Congress and the BJP have ruled the state alternatively since 1985.
"Whether or not the AAP will emerge as a third force in the state, time will tell. At this point in time, the contest is one-sided as our main rival (the Congress) is without a mass leader and also a faction-ridden house," a senior BJP minister told IANS.
Himachal Pradesh was traditionally dominated by the Congress and saw its first non-Congress chief minister, Shanta Kumar, in 1977, when the Janata Party came to power.
The Congress appointed its three-time MP Pratibha Singh, the widow of six-time chief minister Virbhadra Singh, as the state unit president in April.
Unlike her husband who had a direct connect even at the grassroots, Pratibha Singh has spearheaded the poll campaign in a bid to oust the incumbent Jai Ram Thakur-led government.
The Congress is banking on its promise to bring back the Old Pension Scheme (OPS) that will benefit 225,000 employees, a crucial vote bank."Like in Rajasthan and Chhattisgarh, we will reintroduce the OPS scheme, if we are voted to power," Pratibha Singh told IANS.
The divided Congress is struggling to speak with one voice over key issues to put the government in the dock relating to corruption, deteriorating law and order, rising debt, an education scam for selling more than 45,000 fake degrees and the constable recruitment question paper leak that was sold for Rs 6 lakh to Rs 8 lakh.
The Congress is banking mainly on an anti-incumbency wave against the ruling dispensation. It won three Assembly and one parliamentary seat in the October 2021 by-polls.
A first-of-its kind massive anti-government protest by apple growers in the state capital this month over challenges to the Rs 5,000-crore apple industry is a case in point.
The Congress is aiming to woo the apple growers, who have considerable political clout in at least 20 assembly seats mainly in the Shimla region. The growers have been on the streets against the government over high input costs and the government's failure to protect their interests.
Hundreds of apple growers, gathered under the Sanyukt Kisan Manch, an umbrella body of over 24 groups, held a protest, the first in 30 years, in the state capital this month over challenges the Rs 5,000-crore apple industry is facing.
The Manch will launch a 'Jail Bharo Andolan' from August 17 if the government fails to meet its 20-point agenda of demands and resolve the issue.
Confident of coming back to power on the basis of performance, senior BJP minister Suresh Bhardwaj told IANS in a recent interview, "Though the BJP is always ready for elections, but that is not our priority."
"Our government works for the people's welfare. In Himachal, our government led by Chief Minister Jai Ram Thakur under the guidance of Prime Minister Narendra Modi has initiated several steps in the public interest.
"We have enhanced the ambit of social security pensions, Ayushman scheme by rolling out Himcare, free power within certain limits, low bus fare for women, reduced fare for others, etc. There are so many other steps taken by our government. The BJP is strong with the people's blessings and ready for the 2022 assembly polls."
The party has just held conventions of booth-level office-bearers in all four Lok Sabha segments.Chief Minister Thakur believes good governance with zero corruption, which is essential for economic growth, and no witch hunting are the mantras for his success. Unprecedented development will remain the party's main poll plank for this year's Assembly polls.
"Despite the pandemic, we have made a rapid recovery. The government is implementing the Rs 1,010 crore Himachal Pradesh Crop Diversification Scheme in all districts.
The gross enrolment ratio of primary, middle and high schools in the state is hundred per cent, while it is 85.6 per cent in case of senior secondary schools.
"The ratio goes up to 98.8 per cent if technical institutions are added to the senior secondary level," Thakur told IANS on Saturday.An optimistic Thakur, in whom the central leadership reposed faith by bringing a generational change in the state politics, believes the AAP is not an alternative as people have previously rejected the third front in the state.
"Long ago an attempt was made to form a third political alternative. It failed despite the tallest state leader heading it," he said.The state had witnessed a coalition government for the first time in 1998 when the Himachal Vikas Congress led by former Union minister late Sukh Ram formed an alliance with the BJP by winning five seats.
The HVC extended support to the BJP and joined the government. In the next Assembly polls, the HVC got one seat and finally merged with the Congress.
Missing no opportunity to retain the 'dynasty' of her husband, who had devoted over 50 years for the common people despite being born in royalty, Congress leader Pratibha Singh believes in replicating the 'Virbhadra model' of governance.
"The key feature of Raja Saab's (Virbhadra) governance is that it is public-centric with a futuristic vision," Pratibha Singh told IANS.According to her, the elections are being fought under a collective leadership.
Mukesh Agnihotri has been retained as the Congress Legislature Party leader, while former state unit chief Sukhvinder Singh Sukhu has been made head of the campaign committee.
About the chief ministerial face, Pratibha Singh replied, "Our first priority is to regain the mandate. The chief minister can only be declared once our government is formed."
The BJP had won a majority in the 2017 Assembly polls with 44 seats in the 68-member Assembly.