With the counting for the four Lok Sabha seats of Himachal Pradesh to begin on Friday morning, all eyes are now set on the Kangra and Hamirpur parliamentary constituencies.
While Bharatya Janata Party veteran leader and former union minister Shanta Kumar is in the fray from Kangra after 10 years, Anurag Thakur, the parliamentarian son of former chief minister Prem Kumar Dhumal, is locked in a tough battle from Hamirpur seat.
In Kangra, Shanta is pitted against two former members of parliament, including his one-time protégé Rajan Sushant, who is contesting on the Aam Aadmi Party ticket, and the Congress' Chander Kumar. Chander had defeated Shanta in 2004 and lost to Sushant in the 2009 polls.
The Kangra constituency, which gave Himachal its first non-Congress chief minister in 1977, remained a stronghold of the Congress till the late 1980s. The BJP got a breakthrough in this politically-significant region with Shanta's victory in 1989. Given the significant other backward class (OBC) population in Kangra, the Congress played the caste card by fielding Chander, who belongs to the community. However, confident that the caste factor will not become a rallying point in this election, the BJP relied on the charisma of Shanta, who had stayed away from electoral politics for a decade and announced his retirement.
Poll observers feel it could be easy sailing for Shanta, given the anti-Congress sentiments prevailing in the region. “As an independent candidate, Sushant could have queered the pitch for the BJP, but his contesting as the AAP candidate will dent both sides equally, giving an edge to Shanta,” said a poll observer.
In Hamirpur, Dhumal's prestige is at stake. In the opposition party's fortress, the Congress' Rajinder Rana has made Dhumal's elder son Anurag Thakur run for every vote in this election. Rana, trusted lieutenant of Dhumal at one time, had rebelled after being denied ticket for the 2012 assembly elections. Given Rana's hold in Hamirpur and Una districts, chief minister Virbhadra Singh backed his candidature in spite of opposition within the party.
Rana vacated the Sujanpur assembly seat, which he had won in 2012 as an Independent, to contest the Lok Sabha polls. Poll observers said Anurag's fate will largely depend on how much lead he gets from the assembly segments of Hamirpur district and Dharampur assembly segment of Mandi district, as it will be a neck-to-neck contest in the nine assembly segments of Una and Bilaspur districts.
“These two seats are also important as it will decide which party would form the next government. If the National Democratic Alliance forms the government and the BJP wins these seats, there could be two central ministers from the state,” said a poll observer. “Shanta is a senior leader and could hold a key portfolio, as the Rashtriya Swyamsevak Sangh would also be backing him, while Anurag, if he wins, could be inducted in the cabinet in the youth quota,” he added.