The assembly elections in the hill state are crucial for the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party in many ways. Besides being a litmus test for chief minister Prem Kumar Dhumal's popularity, the polls are equally significant for the BJP national leadership as the party's road to Delhi traverses through Shimla and Gandhi Nagar.
On the electoral agenda of the BJP are local and development issues besides the anti-incumbency factor, which will surely come into play in Himachal where chief minister Prem Kumar Dhumal is seeking second consecutive term. Since both the BJP-ruled states of Himachal and Gujarat will go to polls simultaneously, the outcome is sure to define the course of BJP's national-level politics. If Dhumal wins another term, he will create a history of sorts by becoming the first non-Congress chief minister to retain power, that too in a state where voters are known to change government every five years. Dhumal will try to make the elections a referendum on development works of his government.
The BJP will also try to rake up the issue of reforms unveiled by the UPA government, with a hope of getting public sentiments against the Congress.
In the last assembly elections, the BJP managed to secure 41 of the total 68 seats and three of its rebels, too, made it to the assembly. The intra-party strife in the Congress worked to the advantage of the BJP. Former tourism minister Vijay Singh Mankotia parted ways with the then chief minister Virbhadra Singh. After launching a tirade against Singh, Mankotia released a controversial compact disc containing telephonic conservation of Singh and his wife Pratibha Singh with an IAS officer, Mohinder Lal. The compact disc had given leverage to the BJP's campaign.
Mankotia went on lead Mayawati's Bahujan Samaj Party, which caused heavy electoral losses to the Congress. The rebels affected the Congress prospects directly in 26 constituencies.
This time, however, the BJP faces more challenges even though the party's poll preparations have begun well in advance. All through five years, Dhumal kept a firm grip on the party, with his trusted people replacing each other as the state party chief.
Even as chief minister Prem Kumar Dhumal harps on his developmental agenda, the party's image has taken a beating with its own leaders accusing the BJP government of "patronising" corruption. Dissidents backed by former union minister Shanta Kumar even submitted a dossier on corruption to BJP national president Nitin Gadkari. While the BJP splinter group led by former Lok Sabha member Maheshwar Singh formed Himachal Lokhit Party, party's Kangra MP Rajan Sushant launched an anti-corruption tirade against Dhumal.
Allegations of corruption from its own partymen had definitely given a tool to Congress to hit back at Dhumal.
What is more worrying for the BJP is the rift between Dhumal and Shanta Kumar, which has widened over the issue of ticket allocation. For Jawalamukhi assembly constituency, both Dhumal and Shanta want ticket for their loyalists IPH minister Ravinder Ravi and food minister Ramesh Dhawala, respectively. The party had declared 45 candidates, but disagreement over names had delayed the announcement of nominees on the remaining 23 seats.
Afflicted with intra-party squabbles, the BJP faces high chances of rebellion this time. Dhumal's detractors know it well that if he gets a second consecutive term, he will become too strong for them to be checkmated in near future. His detractors also fear that Dhumal's victory in the elections will strengthen his MP son Anurag Thakur who is being projected as future leader of the party by one section. The other group in the party sees BJP national general secretary JP Nadda as their future leader.
In spite opposition from his detractors, chief minister Prem Kumar Dhumal had been able to develop his image as "performing" chief minister.
Dhumal's performance has often found him being equated with his counterparts in BJP-ruled Madhya Pradesh, Gujarat and Chhattisgarh. Dhumal launched a series of schemes for the welfare of school children, farmers, dairy farmers, horticulturists and employees.
However, the bad condition of roads in the state had definitely removed the tag of 'Sarakwala mukhya mantri' as Dhumal was known once.
Dhumal has another tough job at hand of keeping a tab on his detractors. He is facing the Congress, led by five-time chief minister and seasoned politician Virbhadra Singh. Singh's return has only strengthened the Congress, which, for the past four years, remained soft on the BJP.
A QUICK ANALYSIS
Developmental initiatives despite tight fiscal conditions
No uncertainty over chief ministerial candidate
Reforms and tough decisions of UPA may work to its advantage
Banking on internal bickering in rival Congress
Camp rivalries within the party
BJP leaders accused the Dhumal government of corruption
Under attack for favoritism and nepotism
Breakaway faction may make a dent in some areas
A tough battle, the election is as much a matter of prestige for the BJP as it is for Prem Kumar Dhumal. The BJP, which has managed to retain power in several states, would spare no effort to hold on to Himachal too. A win would give a new impetus to the party top brass' no-holds barred campaign against the Congress-led UPA government at the Centre. As for Dhumal, his stock would also go up in a party that boasts of several CMs with back-to-back victories in their states.
Party's position in last 3 polls
Total seats 68
YEAR SEATS CONTESTED WON
2007 68 41
2003 68 16
1998 68 31