Known as the 'Garh' (stronghold) of former union telecom minister Sukh Ram, who is revered as 'father of telecom revolution' in Himachal, the Mandi Sadar assembly segment is poised for an interesting contest with the entry of few 'lightweight' candidates this time.
In a battle of high stakes, though sitting MLA and Congress candidate Anil Sharma, son of Sukh Ram, is facing a divided BJP having Durga Dutta Thakur as its official nominee and its Mandi Sadar Block president Shayam Lal Thakur as rebel, in plain political calculations, the path seems to be easy for Sharma.
But on the ground, Lok Jan Shakti Party (LJP) leader Krishan Kumar Dassu, Communist Party of India (CPI) nominee Desh Raj Sharma, Himachal Lokhit Party's (HLP) Harish Sharma, who are expected to fetch at least 2,000-3,000 votes each, are set to disturb the political equation for the Congress.
Dassu, a sitting Zila Parishad member, and Desh Raj, state secretary of CPI, come from the Tungal belt of Mandi Sadar, the area, which till now, in every poll, has given a decisive lead to Sukh Ram or his son. Any kind of breach into the Congress fort by the two could benefit Durga Dutt who in previous assembly poll, in a direct contest, had lost the battle to Sharma by a margin of 2,744 votes.
Moreover, addition of five panchayats, considered strong pockets of the Congress vote bank in the assembly segment, to nearby Balh and Darang constituencies after delimitation could also affect the Congress prospects.
Like previous polls, Sharma is banking upon his father's goodwill in the area. However, with corruption being the major issue, his rivals are likely to rake up 'tainted' past of Sukh Ram. In 1996, the Central Bureau of Investigation had seized from Sukh Ram's official residence Rs. 3.6 crore in cash concealed in bags and suitcases, which he had allegedly collected in connection with irregularities in awarding a telecom contract. He was convicted on November 18, 2011 in one of the cases.
However, Durga Dutt who had lost last three assembly polls is hopeful of getting sympathy of people to give them the "last" chance to enter the Vidhan Sabha.
Both are considered low-profile leaders in the segment. In 1998 and 2003, Durga Dutt had contested on Congress ticket and lost to Sukh Ram (the latter had formed Himachal Vikas Congress in 1998 while parting ways with the Congress), while in 2003, he was given ticket by the BJP.
"My father and I have always nurtured this constituency for the past many years by bringing a number of developmental projects to the region. This time, too, the tempo of the election was in our favour. Moreover, a clear division in the BJP is giving us an edge," states Anil Sharma, while campaigning door-to-door in Thanera ward of Mandi city.
While moving from one house to another, built on the hills in the walled city and old areas of Mandi, Sharma, during his interaction with the voters, was seen striking a chord with the locals, urging them to vote for "better" change in the state.
In his sports shoes, trousers and a full-sleeve sweater, Sharma, when he was asked by a house lady for a favour, replied smartly in local Mandiyali dialect, "Phele Munjo Eta Layak Banao (First make me capable of this by giving vote)."
On the other hand, the BJP candidate, who was also campaigning in the nearby Bhagwahan ward, claimed that he was sure to get a chance this time as people of the area were fully satisfied with the development of the area carried out by the chief minister Prem Kumar Dhumal and the BJP was set to regain power in Himachal Pradesh.
"You all know that Dhumalji is set to become chief minister again. Don't waste your vote by giving it to the Congress candidate," Durga Dutt tells people.
"Minjo ek mauka deo, pheri dekha, Mandi ri asli development (Give me a chance and see the real development of Mandi)," the BJP candidate appeals to people.
He also dismissed any kind of factionalism in the BJP even as its block president was contesting as independent. "If our rebel is there, there are many more to ruin the Congress chances as well. You just wait for the poll day and the result," a confidant Durga Dutt said.
Apart from municipal council of Mandi, the Mandi assembly segment's two-thirds area comprises rural voters. As per trends till now, the city voters have not given a big edge to any political party and only rural voters decide the fate of the constituency.
For Sharma, the big challenge would be to maintain its traditional vote bank from the Tungal belt with two other candidates also in fray from the same belt, while for Durga Dutt, the votes fetched by BJP rebel Shayam Lal would be biggest worry. "I am contesting against team A and B of the Congress. While Anil Sharma is team A, Durga Dutt, a rented candidate of BJP from the Congress, is team B. I am organisation's man and the real BJP is with me," he said.
The BJP had won this seat last time in 1990 when its candidate Thakur Kanhya Lal had defeated Congress' Durga Dutt Thakur.
Till now, Sukh Ram has not entered into the campaign and he was expected to canvass for his son in the last leg of the campaign which could pay off for Anil Sharma.
Total Votes: 63,476
Last assembly election:
Winner: Anil Sharma
Victory margin: 2,744
Deciding issues: Lack of educational institutes, bad condition of roads and lack of cleanliness in the Mandi city area.
X factor: BJP has failed to win this constituency after 1990.