In an election which may have far reaching consequences on the course of national politics, the Congress and the Bharatiya Janata Party face each other in an eyeball to eyeball confrontation for the first time after Gujarat when polling takes place for the Himachal Pradesh Assembly on Wednesday.
Leaders of both parties on Tuesday claimed victory and predicted a comfortable majority. BJP general secretary Pramod Mahajan said that his party was going to secure around 38 seats. Congress spokesman Anand Sharma did not give any figure but maintained that the Congress would form the next government comfortably. The results of the elections will be declared on March 1.
The importance of the Himachal polls for both parties was demonstrated by the fact that so many national leaders including Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee and Congress president Sonia Gandhi descended on this tiny hill state for campaigning.
The stakes evidently are very high for the BJP and the Congress and a defeat is bound to have a demoralizing affect not only on the cadres but may influence the November Assembly elections in other states where the two parties will again be pitted against each other.
Having failed to make Hindutva into an issue during the campaign, the BJP leaders are primarily banking on the performance of the PK Dhumal government to bring it back to power. The Congress on the other hand is hoping to cash in on a very strong anti-incumbency factor as well as the tainted image of some members of the BJP government.
While people by and large appear to be in favour of a change, it is to be seen whether the Congress will be able to translate it into support and vote for its candidates. If it loses, the Congress will have nobody but itself to blame.
Rebels and independent candidates in a number of constituencies may hold the key, as both the parties are still unsure of their impact on the chances of official nominees.
The Congress, which enjoyed a clear advantage when the poll process started, seems to have allowed the BJP to cover up a lot of ground in the past few days. Barring Sonia Gandhi and to some extent Punjab CM Amarinder Singh's aggressive campaigning, the Congress was unable to fully utilise other leaders during the run up to the polls essentially on account of poor infra structure and bad planning.
The BJP on the other hand brought all its top leaders not only for the campaign but also to manage the organizational activity even at the constituency level.
While meetings of Mr Vajpayee were well attended, those of others including Gujarat Chief Minister Narendra Modi drew modest crowds.
Mr Vajpayee in his campaign tried to make Hindutva into an issue but the Congress did not take the bait. Instead Sonia Gandhi in her speeches delved more on corruption and poor performance of the BJP governments at the Centre and in the state as also on how the BJP leaders were threatening to destroy the country's social fabric.
While the BJP was initially keen to prove that the Gujarat victory contested on the Hindutva issue was not an aberration, it was obvious that Hindutva cannot be a vote catching device in a predominantly Hindu state, which even in 1993 after the demolition of the disputed structure in Ayodhya had voted for the Congress.
The campaigning also brought to fore the rivalries between Shanta Kumar and Dhumal in the BJP and Vidya Stokes and Virbhadra Singh in the Congress.
Many leaders tried to play for the second round (who will be the CM) even before the first round finished. The BJP in an attempt to hide its faction fight tried to focus on the inability of the Congress to name its leader prior to the polls.
The Sukhram factor also seems to be haunting both the parties. The smear campaign by the two parties left a mark on the campaign. The Congress charged Dhumal with corruption and the BJP retaliated by levelling serious charges of moral turpitude against some Punjab ministers during the Gujarat campaign.
A lot of important issues, which should have had a bearing on the polls, got sidelined due to this high voltage smear propaganda indulged in by the two parties.
The weather could also play an important role in influencing the outcome and both sides are praying that even tomorrow is a clear and sunny day like today. Many campaigning hours were lost due to poor weather and if it rains or snows tomorrow, the contestants will have a lot to worry about.