Nov 04, 2012 at 10:42am IST

Himachal Pradesh Assembly polls: First electoral battle between Cong, BJP after reforms

New Delhi: The Himachal Pradesh 2012 Assembly elections began at 8 am on Sunday. A total of 459 candidates are in the fray for the 68-member Assembly. The election is important as it's the first after the recent reforms unleashed by the Centre, that included the cap on subsidised LPG cylinders and 51 per cent FDI in retail. Political heavyweights, incumbent CM Prem Kumar Dhumal of the Bharatiya Janata Party and Virbhadra Singh of the Congress, are jostling for the voters' attention. Both the parties have not left any stone unturned for the contest with the biggest names from both hitting the campaign trail.

While Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and UPA chairperson Sonia Gandhi campaigned for the Congress in the state, the BJP was represented by senior leaders like LK Advani, Gujarat Chief Minister Narendra Modi, Leader of Opposition in Lok Sabha Sushma Swaraj and Leader of Opposition in Rajya Sabha Arun Jaitley.

ALSO SEE Himachal Pradesh vote projection: Congress, BJP neck and neck

The 2012 Assembly elections in the state is slated to decide the fate of Dhumal and Virbhadra Singh. The battle is even more interesting this year because if the BJP manages to beat the anti-incumbency factor, it would retain power in a state, which has not repeated a government since 1977.

The campaign for the Himachal Pradesh Assembly elections also witnessed its share of drama with war of words between the two major parties. While Congress president Sonia Gandhi hit out at the BJP alleging that it had never acted against its leaders involved in corruption, veteran BJP leader LK Advani claimed that the scams by the UPA had tainted the image of the country abroad.

ALSO SEE Himachal elections: Over 8,000 nonagenarians to cast votes on Sunday

The war of words got even more interesting with Gujarat Chief Minister Narendra Modi mocking Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, calling him ‘Maun’ Mohan Singh. Addressing a public rally, he said “Maun Mohan Singh ne Himachal mein apna maun todaa (Maun Mohan Singh broke his silence in Himachal).”

The BJP strongman also attacked Minister of State (MoS) for Human Resources Development (HRD) Shashi Tharoor. In a below-the-belt remark, Modi targeted Tharoor’s wife Sunanda Pushkar, calling her a “Rs 50 crore girlfriend”. This evoked angry reactions from both Tharoor and Pushkar. While Tharoor posted a tweet saying his wife more than “his imaginative 50 crore”, Sunanda Pushkar said she did not expect this from a Chief Minister.

The BJP and the Congress are contesting all 68 seats while the BSP has fielded 66 candidates followed by the Himachal Lokhit Party (36), the Trinamool Congress (25), the Samajwadi Party (16), the CPI-M (15), the Nationalist Congress Party and the Swabhiman Party (12 each), the CPI (7), the Shiv Sena (4) and 105 Independents.

Himachal Pradesh vote projection: Congress, BJP neck and neck

A pre-poll survey conducted by the Centre for the Study of Developing Societies (CSDS) for CNN-IBN shows that it will be a very close contest between the BJP and Congress, with 41 per cent of votes going to the BJP and 40 per cent to the Congress. So, although the BJP is a nose ahead of the Congress in terms of vote-share, its share has dropped from 2007, when the party won 41 seats in the 68-member state Assembly. The Congress ended with only 19 seats, although it had been the dominant party in the previous twenty years.

What will the vote shares mean in terms of number of seats? The pre-poll survey by CSDS, which interviewed 2014 voters from the latest electoral rolls between 14 October and 21 October in 119 locations in 30 Assembly constituencies spread across the state, does not offer seat projections. While the BJP has seen a three per cent decrease in its vote share, which stood at 44 per cent in 2007, the Congress has managed to gain only one per cent over its 39 per cent earlier. As for the other parties, their share is likely to rise from 17 per cent in 2007 to 19 per cent now.

A closer look reveals that, of the 68 seats, the Congress is ahead in the 34 seats in the East Himachal region, which consists of the Lahaul Spiti, Kullu, Mandi, Solan, Sirmaur, Shimla and Kinnaur districts. The party is sitting comfortably in Shimla and adjoining areas, and is in a close contest with the BJP in Mandi, Sirmaur and Solan. In West Himachal, which account for the remaining 34 seats, the BJP has an edge in Hamirpur area and is facing a tough time in Kangra and Una. West Himachal consists of Chamba, Kangra, Hamirpur, Una, and Bilaspur districts.

While the contest is bound to be a closely fought one, the BJP can take comfort from the survey which shows that the pro-incumbency sentiment is stronger than anti-incumbency, though not by a wide margin. While 40 per cent of those surveyed were willing to give the BJP government of Chief Minister Prem Kumar Dhumal another chance, 34 per cent were against it. But 26 per cent of the surveyed voters are still undecided, and this could play a major role in the final outcome.

Even the race for the chief ministership is a close one with 34 per cent of the voters favouring the sitting CM Prem Kumar Dhumal, while his rival Virbhadra Singh of the Congress is snapping at his heels with 33 per cent. Only December 20 will reveal the verdict.