* Narendra Modi will campaign for BJP
* Sukhram forms 3rd front with CPM & Himachal Loktantrik Morcha
* Ram Vilas Paswan joins the poll fray for first time
* Polls in 65 of 68 seats. Three snow-bound seats will go to polls in June
The tiny hill state of Himachal Pradesh -- the first state to go to polls after Gujarat -- is where the spotlight has shifted to now. The ruling party is the same -- BJP, the main opposition is also the same -- Congress, but the issues and circumstances are not.
If Gujarat has set any trend, Himachal will test it. Come the polling day on February 26 and Himachal will run a reality-check on BJP's Gujarat triumph and the results on .... will largely determine if that TRIUMPH was genuine, manufactured or just circumstantial.
Devoid of any Godhra or Akshardham, and with just two per cent minority votes, it is a prestige issue for BJP. Bur for a nervous Congress, the state poses a do or die scenario. Results will affect its course of action for other crucial assembly polls lined up this year.
Tucked away in the Siwalik range, the state with 49 General, 16 SC and three ST seats has never before grabbed the nation's attention with such a passion. Besides traditional players -- Congress and BJP --, the Himachal Vikas Congress of a tainted Sukhram is also set to hog the limelight because it was finally his support which enabled BJP to form government in 1998 polls despite getting a far lesser vote per centage than Congress. This time he has formed a third front with CPI (M). The first-time entry of Ram Vilas Paswan, with an eye of 25 per cent dalit votes in the state, has added another interesting twist in the poll battle.
Development: It's a major issue with PK Dhumal-led BJP Government claiming to have done in five years what Congress couldn't do in decades of its governance. Dhumal has been quite successful in many development projects, including road construction, which has even given him a nickname -- the Road King. The Congress, however, is critical of the government works in last five years.
Corruption: This issue is dear to both Congress and BJP who accuse each other of being neck-deep into corruption. Congress stalwart and former CM Virbhadra Singh as well the state Congress chief Vidya Stokes were charged with corruption but they claim to have been cleared by the CBI and Supreme Court respectively. Chief Minister PK Dhumal and a few of Cabinet colleagues also face such charges. Last year seven BJP MLAs, including four ministers, issued a 'charge sheet' against Dhumal on many charges of corruption.
Terrorism: BJP is set to make terrorism a major poll issue, particularly in view of terrorism-related problems in areas bordering Jammu and Kashmir. 'Himachalis, who are in large numbers in Indian Army, have been making sacrifices while the new Congress-PDP regime in J&K is going soft on terrorism,' Dhumal says.
Hindutva: With only two per cent minority votes, including those of Christians and Muslims, BJP will find the rallying of Hindutva votes an almost impossible task. But the issue is likely to be raised in the garb of cultural nationalism as a string of leaders, including Gujarat CM Narendra Modi, speak their hearts out as part of BJP campaign.
Anti-incumbency Factor: Congress has also pinned its hopes on the anti-incumbency factor, which however didn't play any role in Gujarat. But then Gujarat was deeply polarised on sentimental and communal grounds, which is not the case in Himachal.
In the absence of any wave, the factor that affects most in any state election is that of caste. With 38 pc Rajput population, mostly the Thakurs have ruled the state. First Himachal CM YS Parmar was a Rajput, so is Dhumal and so is Virbhadra. Even Vidya Stokes claims a Thakur lineage from her father's side.
Eighteen per cent of the population is Brahmin. Congress has no big Brahmin leader but BJP has Shanta Kumar-- the BJP MP from the state who been assigned the key role of party chairman of the election panel.
Dalits have 25 per cent of Himachal votes while 16 pc population is in Other Backward Classes category. These two have been deciding factors in lower Himachal Pradesh. Dhumal has tried to woo them by extending 'backward' status to Gujjars and Gaddhis. With Kolis dominating the dalits, Lok Shakti leader Ram Vilas Paswan, too has high hopes despite his maiden foray into the state politics.
Once deride for stacks of notes in his bathroom following Telecom scam, this controversial former telecom minister had proved pivotal at the end of 1998 assembly polls. Despite a smaller percentage vote (39%), the BJP was able to form government although Congress got significantly larger vote share (44%). The reason was Sukhram's outside support to BJP with his 10% votes. He backed BJP for a full five-year-term but has now decided to form a third front with CPI (M) and Himachal Loktantrik Morcha -- a conglomeration of small groups. He enjoys considerable influence in Brahmin lobby.
The Virbhadra-Stokes tussle in Congress and Dhumal vs. Shanta Kumar tug of war in BJP is well known. Dhumal is charged with engineering 'delimitation' to cut to size Shanta Kumar in BJP and Virbhadra in Congress. Meanwhile, Virbhadra supporters claim that Stokes is just a 'B' team of BJP. Despite intensive efforts to settle the differences in both the parties, dissensions may hit the key players in the state.
1998 ELECTION MAZE
The ninth Himachal Vidhan Sabha, which has been dissolved, would be remembered for being a witness to many unique events.
The March 1998 Assembly elections saw a hung Assembly with both the ruling Congress and BJP-HVC alliance having 32 members each after the death of one BJP MLA, Varinder Kumar even before the declaration of election results.
The governor invited the Congress Legislature Party Leader V B Singh to form the government on March 6, 1998 but he resigned on March 12, 1998 before seeking the vote of confidence. The governor recommended that the Assembly be kept under suspended animation till the election to three tribal constituencies and one by-election.
In the meantime, the Vajpayee Government was formed at the Centre and the union cabinet sent a reference to the governor to explore other options for formation of the government.
The independent MLAs, Romesh Dhawala who held the precarious balance of power, first joined the Singh ministry and was later sworn in as a cabinet minister in Dhumal ministry which assumed office on March 24, 1998.
The Himachal Vikas Congress supremo Sukh Ram who was inducted as number two in the cabinet had to resign in May 1998, just two months after the formation of ministry following filing of charge-sheet against him in a Delhi court.
The BJP-HVC combine won the Pragpur by-election and the elections to three tribal Assembly constituencies to attain clear majority in the 68-member Assembly.