Literate, aware and spirited voters of the tiny hill state of Himachal Pradesh always keep politicians on toes as their expectations are very high. The just concluded Assembly poll was no exception. In fact, this time the people broke all records and turned out in highest ever numbers ~ 74.6 per cent ~ to cast their vote, even in remote areas, on 9 November. Since 1982, the state has been recording over 70 per cent voter turnout, except for once in 1990, when it was around 68 per cent. The state’s literacy rate is around 83 per cent.

Himachal, which was traditionally Congress ruled till 1977, when it saw the Janata Party form the first non-Congress government, has settled for a twoparty system over the last three decades in the absence of any viable third alternative. The Congress and BJP have been alternating power in Himachal since 1985.

The BJP, however, could form government purely on its own only in 2007. In 1990, it came to power with a prepoll alliance with Janata Dal and in 1998, it struck a post-poll alliance with former Union minister, Sukh Ram’s Himachal Vikas Congress (HVC). In 1998, with Congress and BJP getting 31 seats each, the Congress had managed to form government with one independent just for 13 days.

In the 2012 polls, the ruling BJP was confident of repeating its performance based on development, but could not. It was limited to 26 seats, with Congress getting 36, Himachal Lokhit Party (HLP) one and independents five. The heavy polling coupled with the trend of change every five years has given much confidence to the BJP this time around. It is hoping to wrest power on the anti-incumbency plank.

The ruling Congress is hopeful of a repeat based on development and positive approach towards every section, mainly regular and contract employees and youth seeking jobs in government. Over 2.5 lakh employees in the public sector form a formidable chunk of the electorate with their families and they go with the party which facilitates them the most in every election.

The Congress is eyeing anti-incumbency against the Centre on issues of GST, price rise, too. “Apart from issues that matter for the common man, the people in this small state are in close contact with their MLAs for day to day work. Even ministers and chief ministers here have been easily accessible, which raises expectations of people from them, and ultimately every government suffers,” said BK Sharma, a political science expert from Kangra. He pointed out that with 60 sitting MLAs in the fray again (most of them having two, three or four terms in a row), they may face anti-incumbency at the constituency level, above party level. The poll results will, however, come after a long gap on 18 December.

The Congress was clear from the very beginning that six-time Chief Minister Virbhadra Singh, 83, who has mass appeal, was the best bet for them even in 2017. But the BJP tried to experiment this time, on the lines of its electoral strategy in other states, which it could not sustain. The party first campaigned on the strength of Modi’s impact in Himachal, not projecting any CM candidate.

Ultimately, when it sensed that the ‘Modi face’ had brought the central irritants like demonetisation, price rise and GST to focus in a state where local issues dominate polls, it suddenly declared two-time CM and popular leader, Prem Kumar Dhumal as its CM’s face. “It was based on feedback that people in Himachal are emotionally attached to their leader,” explained state BJP vice president Ganesh Dutt. Dutt said issues like GST or demonetisation do not have much impact here as the people vote on local issues, including corruption and non-performance of the Congress government.

The Congress, however, dubs it as BJP’s illusion. “People of HP are happy with the Congress government in Himachal and unhappy with the BJP-led government at the Centre as it has made the life of common man tough. That’s why BJP chose to push ‘Modi face’ back in Himachal,” said state Congress general secretary Naresh Chauhan. All said and done, the BJP campaign in Himachal was aggressive with Prime Minister Narendra Modi, BJP president Amit Shah and over a dozen central ministers making a beeline to the state to support their CM face, Dhumal.

Their main target was Virbhadra Singh and corruption. The Congress had Virbhadra as the ‘lone warrior’ electioneering in the entire state. Undeterred, Singh moved on with his development agenda and made an ’emotional appeal’ to people to cash in on his personal connect with the grassroots. “You all know how BJP-led Central government has victimised me in three years of their rule. Despite that I worked hard for state’s development. I appeal to you to support me in the last election of my political career,” Singh urged people with folded hands at all meetings.