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Will Congress hold ground against Modi magic? Battle of prestige in hills today

HP voting day Cong, BJP lock horns in all 68 constituencies, over 50 lakh voters to decide fate of 337 candidates, Kangra district — with 15 segments — is crucial for both the parties; results on Dec 18.

assembly elections Updated: Nov 09, 2017 10:37 IST
Navneet Sharma and Gaurav Bisht
Navneet Sharma and Gaurav Bisht
Hinduatan Times, Shimla
Himachal Pradesh Assembly election 2017,Himachal assembly polls 2017,Prem Kumar Dhumal
BJP’s Prem Kumar Dhumal casting his vote during the Himachal elections at Samirpur near Hamirpur on Thursday.(Anil Dayal/HT)

Over 50 lakh voters will cast their votes in Himachal Pradesh on Thursday to decide the winner of the ‘battle of prestige’ between two traditional rivals, the Congress and the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP).

The two parties have been fighting each other for decades, but never before has the election seen such a parade of national leaders, high-pitched campaigning and hectoring attacks, often transcending the boundaries of acceptable political rhetoric.

The BJP, which under the Narendra Modi-Amit Shah dispensation is not known to take any election lightly, sees itself as a natural claimant this time due to the state’s revolving-door electoral history. Also, the election in HP and Gujarat, which will go to poll next month, are being seen by some as a test of public support for demonetisation announced exactly a year ago and the goods and services tax (GST). The Congress, which has started showing some semblance of recovery after a series of poll reverses with the exception of Punjab, is up against anti-incumbency.

In the absence of a perceptible wave, the two parties have gone all out, peppering each other with accusations and indulging in competitive populism like never before. The BJP has run a high-octane campaign, targeting the Congress and Virbhadra on corruption, law and order and unemployment.

“Congress leadership is out on bail. Everything is on bail – the party, its leaders and the government...this is a ‘zamanati (out on bail) sarkar’ here,” Prime Minister Narendra Modi said at his first campaign rally. Though the onslaught by Modi and other BJP leaders made the Congress edgy, Virbhadra responded barb for barb, and maintained a punishing schedule with development as the central theme of his campaign. The Congress central leaders, including Congress vice-president Rahul Gandhi, went after Modi on GST and demonetisation.

The BJP was belligerent from the word go, banking on the ‘Modi magic’, but the party strategists had not expected the Congress, particularly Virbhadra, to put up such a fight. It was compelled to alter its strategy and name ex-CM Prem Kumar Dhumal as its chief ministerial face, as the Congress leader kept poking it about its candidate for the top post. The announcement appears to have brought cheer to party cadres in lower Himachal. It expects gains in assembly segments falling in Hamirpur, Mandi and Una districts.

The electorate in the politically-sensitive Kangra district – with 15 segments – has kept everyone on tenterhooks. Upset over denial of ticket to his protégé in Palampur, BJP veteran leader Shanta Kumar, who holds a considerable clout in the area, has also not campaigned much except attending rallies of Modi and party chief Amit Shah. The Congress, on the other hand, is counting on hilly areas, particularly Solan, Sirmaur, Shimla, Chamba and Kullu districts, to retain power in the state. But rebels and independents have added to uncertainty. The result will be out on December 18.

First Published: Nov 09, 2017 10:35 IST