It is not often that an opposition party finds itself as much on the defensive as the ruling party. In Himachal Pradesh, the Congress campaign to dislodge the Bharatiya Janata Party from power is in the hands of former Chief Minister Virbhadra Singh, who is himself facing serious corruption charges. For voters who have tired of the BJP government led by Prem Kumar Dhumal in the last five years, the alternative in Sunday’s polls could not have been very appealing. Recent Assembly elections have seen a pronounced incumbency disadvantage: since 1985, when the Congress retained power, no party has been able to win a second successive term in office. Not just electoral history, his own performance in government is against Mr. Dhumal. After a lacklustre term, the promises of the party outweigh the achievements of the government. However, in an effort to turn the attention away from his own failures, the Chief Minister, during electioneering, tried to deflect some of the anti-incumbency ire of the people toward the Congress-led United Progressive Alliance government at the Centre. At his public meetings, the BJP leader harped on the hike in the price of diesel, the fuel for the road transport-dependent economy of the mountainous State, and the cap on the number of subsidised LPG cylinders for domestic use. One of Mr. Dhumal’s propaganda offensives was the promise of free energy-efficient induction cook-tops to compensate for the cap on LPG cylinders.
But in addition to the Congress, Mr. Dhumal will have to reckon with the Himachal Lokhit Party, a newly-formed umbrella organisation of BJP dissidents. Even a marginal away-swing in the polls can make a huge difference in small States such as Himachal Pradesh, which have fewer electors per Assembly constituency and lower victory margins. However, just as the BJP fears the HLP, the Congress will have to be wary of the Bahujan Samaj Party encroaching upon its Dalit support base. Large sections of Dalits have traditionally favoured the Congress, and a strong showing by the BSP, which won over seven per cent of the votes in the last election, could indirectly work to the benefit of the BJP. The influence of other parties, including the Left, the Nationalist Congress Party and the Trinamool Congress, will only be minimal irrespective of whether the election is closely fought or not. While corruption and price rise matter in the election, for the voters exercised over these issues there is little to choose between the BJP and the Congress.