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Campaign reaching climax in Himachal

The campaigning, which ends on Monday, has so far seen BJP and Cong trying to outdo each other with plenty of mud-slinging.

india Updated: Feb 22, 2003 18:57 IST

Amid a sizzling election campaign that has seen Indian leaders bundled up in warm clothes swoop down and canvass for votes, the hill state of Himachal Pradesh is getting ready to go to the polls on February 26.

The campaigning, which draws to a close Monday, saw the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and the Congress trying to outdo each other with plenty of mud-slinging -- and also some Hindu nationalism thrown in for good measure.

Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee and Congress president Sonia Gandhi were among the big leaders who, sporting colourful local caps, trudged the Himalayan terrains.

The electioneering raised the temperature a few notches in the state that is among the most literate in India with 80 percent people who can read and write.

After the Gujarat verdict, which saw the BJP bagging its first victory on a Hindu nationalist wave, the Himachal Pradesh poll is seen as a crucial test for both the BJP and the Congress.

Given the past history of elections here, analysts are expecting a close finish between the two parties, with the votes likely to swing either way.

Five years ago voters threw up a photo-finish verdict with the BJP and the Congress tied at 31 seats each.

An independent member broke the deadlock by deciding to join the BJP. The Congress had denied this village headman-turned-legislator the party ticket.

The Congress lost the bid for power decisively when a former party man, Sukh Ram of the Himachal Vikas Congress (HVC), took his five legislators to the BJP camp and backed Prem Kumar Dhumal as chief minister.

But Sukh Ram is going it alone this time, supported by neither the BJP nor the Congress.

The 68-member outgoing assembly has 33 BJP legislators, 26 Congress (28 before two died last year), four of the HVC, one independent and two unattached.

Chief Minister Prem Kumar Dhumal launched the BJP campaign by attempting to replicate Gujarat Chief Minister Narendra Modi's communally charged pride rally that the BJP believes swayed Hindu votes in its favour in Gujarat.

Dhumal began by talking about development. "In a hill state like Himachal Pradesh the construction of roads and bridges is key and we have made tremendous progress in this field," he told people.

But, as the electioneering progressed, leaders such as Modi, and finally Vajpayee, appeared to appeal to Hindu sentiments.

In his rally Thursday, Vajpayee promised the building of a grand temple at Ayodhya in Uttar Pradesh.

An aggressive Congress projected confidence of wresting power from the BJP this time.

"A vote swing of around two percent should be sufficient to ensure the Congress a comfortable victory in these elections," said Congress legislator party leader and three-time chief minister Virbhadra Singh.

"A government steeped in corruption has no moral right to remain in office."

Led by Punjab chief minister Amrinder Singh, the party kicked off its election campaign in Chief Minister Dhumal's hometown Hamirpur, alleging that he had amassed huge assets by unfair means.

The allegations sparked a war of words unlike anything ever witnessed before in the picturesque heights of Himachal Pradesh.

Dhumal swiftly sued his Punjab counterpart for defamation and the latter returned the move. Voters silently watched the crosscurrents.

Said Sukh Chain Singh Chauhan, 76, a retired government employee: "The kind of slanging match that has gone on between Congress and BJP this election is truly disappointing and depressing.

"The kind of abusive advertisements in newspapers by both the parties should make us all hang our heads in shame."

Added journalist Ravinder Makhaik: "This kind of rivalry has gone on all winter and real issues that matter to people have been dumped."

In a state where winning margins have always been slim, all that poll pundits can predict is that the difference could be even less this time.

First Published: Feb 22, 2003 15:59 IST