Neither the ruling BJP nor the Congress is surefooted in the no-wave Himachal Pradesh assembly elections as 46 lakh voters are set to seal the fate of 459 candidates in the fray on Sunday.
The voting across 7,253 polling stations will begin at 8 am and continue till 5 pm on Sunday, for which elaborate arrangements are in place with 14,504 Himachal police personnel and 60 companies of paramilitary forces deployed to ensure free and fair polling. The election commission (EC) has deputed 31,908 polling officials for the exercise.
In the no-holds-barred campaign that began after the EC announced a single-phase election in this hill state on October 4, all indications point towards a direct and tough contest between the BJP and the Congress in a majority of the 68 seats.
The race for state capital Shimla between the BJP and the Congress is open even as the Congress has made a strong attempt to dethrone the saffron party. But for the BJP, the danger is from within as its rebels are going to split the votes.
Besides, the Himachal Lokhit Party (a BJP splinter group), BSP, NCP, TMC and 105 Independents will also hold the key to the poll outcome.
In the three-week campaign, not only Independents but also rebels and HLP candidates pitch-forked themselves as potential spoilers. Political parties used all the tricks of election management, from ad campaigns to national leaders crisscrossing the state, to create that elusive wave. But the silence of voters has forced the contestants to keep their fingers crossed.
To shore up the fortunes of their respective candidates, Congress president Sonia Gandhi, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and Congress general secretary Rahul Gandhi aggressively campaigned across the state, while former deputy prime minister LK Advani and BJP chief Nitin Gadkari spearheaded the BJP's assault.
The otherwise tranquil hills witnessed unusually hectic electioneering as never before. The state skies reverberated with flying machines, carrying leaders from one corner of the state to another. Unlike the previous elections where leaders traversed in vehicles, this time both Congress and BJP star campaigners-mainly state Congress president Virbhadra Singh and chief minister Prem Kumar Dhumal-crisscrossed the state in choppers.
Virbhadra canvassed in 61 constituencies, 15 of which he visited twice. On the other hand, Dhumal addressed about 890 public meeting, besides covering a road distance of nearly 2,000 km.
As per Congress poll managers, after the model code of conduct came into force, Virbhadra addressed 86 rallies and made 85 helicopter sorties across the states. Both Dhumal and Virbhadra were much in demand.
The BJP, under its "Mission Repeat," is banking on its trump card, "development", to retain power, something which Himachal has not seen since 1985 when the Congress retained power under Virbhadra's leadership.
Towards the end of the campaign, the BJP tried to retrieve its lost ground in Kangra district (15 seats), while the Congress, sensing an opportunity, conducted a sustained drive in this traditional BJP citadel.
In case of the Congress, it was the tireless Virbhadra who emerged as the vote-catcher. Pitted against him during the electioneering was an equally agile Dhumal, who led the BJP campaign with dogged determination. The campaigning saw both Virbhadra and Dhumal getting locked in a fierce verbal duel and sparing no opportunity to spew venom at each other while trading charges.
The BJP tried to remain in the reckoning by riding on the issues of corruption and price rise, and pointedly targeting Virbhadra. The counter-offensive of the Congress revolved around hitting the BJP hard by accusing the Dhumal regime of rampant corruption and giving a free run to land sharks.
It is after 19 years that a single-phase election is being held. Earlier, the elections in three snow-bound tribal seats, Kinnaur, Bharmour and Lahau- Spiti, used to be held separately.
Star campaigners got poor response
The BJP's campaign saw senior leaders Nitin Gadkari, LK Advani, Sushma Swaraj, Arun Jaitley, Rajnath Singh and Narendra Modi hitting the campaign trail. Modi's twin attack on Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and his sarcastic remarks against union minister of state for HRD Shashi Tharoor's wife Sunanda Pushkar stirred a controversy.
The Congress banked heavily on AICC president Sonia Gandhi and her son Rahul Gandhi, while Prime Minister Manmohan Singh attended one election meeting in Una. Despite the presence of top leaders, public participation was rather poor.
The youth in particular, who constitute nearly 50% of the total voters, did not show much enthusiasm during canvassing. Unlike Dhumal and Virbhadra, national leaders of both the Congress and the BJP failed to draw crowds.
IT adds a new colour to campaign
The political parties made every bid to reach out to the electorate. From street plays to ads in the electronic and print media, the nominees used information technology to the hilt. Social networking sites proved handy for them, while text messages seeking support flashed on mobile phones. Leaders also appealed for votes through television and radio. Thanks to the hi-tech campaign, air and sound pollution levels were low this time.
HLP may spring a surprise
While the BJP and the Congress are contesting all 68 seats, the BSP has emerged as the third largest party in terms of the number of candidates. Though the BSP is contesting 66 seats, going by it past performance when it received less than 2% votes, it may not upset the applecart in the state. The surprise factor may be the Himachal Lokhit Party floated by former state BJP chief and four-time Lok Sabha MP Maheshwar Singh, which is contesting 36 seats. The rebel candidates of the BJP and the Congress, who are contesting over half the total seats, have a potential to turn the tide.