Former soldiers in the hill state are still a force to reckon with, for they hold about 5% of the votes.
Scattered evenly, they may seems insignificant in constituencies, but they are the fraction that can be the deciding factor in victory and defeat, especially in lower region of the state.
The Indian Ex-Services League (IEL) has counted nearly 2 lakh retired soldiers and 2.5 lakh who are still in uniform. The lower districts of Kangra, Hamirpur, and Una hold a major chunk of this vote bank.
Kangra, biggest district in terms of the number of assembly segments, has about 50% of the total ex-servicemen population, followed by Hamirpur and Una, that account for 25% of the defence-employee population collectively.
The IEL has found a huge gap in the government's and own headcount. Most of the retired soldiers have not signed up with the sainik welfare board and many of the serving are not on the voters' list. "The number of soldier who will vote is around 3 lakh, 1.5 lakh less than the total number," said major Vijai Singh Mankotia (retd), president of the Himachal Pradesh chapter of the Indian Ex-Services League. "But multiply this number with the average of three members a family, and see the difference what the opinion of these voters could make." Mankotia himself is contesting from Shahpur on the Congress ticket.
With many of the issues related to soldiers pending with the union and state government, the swing of these votes will depend upon the manifestos of the main political parties. "All these years, successive governments have ignored us," said Gian Chand, a retired soldier. "This time it will be give and take. Accept our demands and get the vote."
The opposition Congress banks upon its "one rank one pension" promise to these voters, while the BJP will call for shifting the Dogra Regiment centre to North and more quota for the hill state in defence recruitment. The ex-servicemen in the state want the Dogra Regiment centre move from Faizabad in Uttar Pradesh to anywhere in north India. The regiment's maximum soldiers are from Himachal Pradesh and Jammu and Kashmir.
Ex-servicemen have to travel long distance to Faizabad even to complete small formalities. The government of chief minister Prem Kumar Dhumal had taken up the issue with the union ministry of defence. He had also sought a regiment in the name of Himachal Pradesh. "After all, the state sends maximum people to armed forces," he had said.
"The demands of quota and shifting the Dogra Regiment centre are genuine but the current BJP government has failed to live up to the expectations of ex-serviceman," said Mankotia. "Most important was is take care of war widows."
Another retired soldier, Sushil Kumar, who is in a state government department on contract, is unhappy about contract conditions of re-employment. "I will retire from second job next year, still working on contract," he said. "At least, the government should have regularized the services of rehabilitated former soldiers."
A retired colonel said on the condition of anonymity that he had no hope of the state government implementing the reservation to ex-servicemen in re-employment. "While the quota is 15%, it was filled only 5% in the past five years," he said. "Many retired soldiers who applied for jobs still await their turn, sitting closer to the retirement age of 58."
Four Parmveer Chakras, an army chief Himachal's contribution to country Himachal Pradesh may be a small state, but its contribution to the armed forces is large. Of the 21Paramveer Chakras, highest gallantry medals, awarded so far, the state has won four. After Major Somnath Sharma, major Dhan Singh Thapa, the other two winners (captain Vikram Batra and rifleman Sanjay Kumar) were from the Kargil War. The state has given the country even an army chief in general VN Sharma.