23 June, the polling day, happens to be Mr Virbhadra Singh&’s birthday. He has asked voters to give him a “birthday gift” in the form of a Congress victory

vepa rao
It is easy to wake up the Himachal Chief Minister Mr Virbhadra Singh from his occasional nap amidst a meeting ~ you just need to whisper “BJP” within hearing distance. He will open his eyes, alert, angry, resentment ringing in his voice and snap at you, asking you for details! His behaviour might be seen as his response to the BJP&’s accusation that his was a “sleeping government”.
Mr Singh, 79, is breathing fire once again as he campaigns for the Mandi Lok Sabha bypoll. Gone are the easy, restful ways he had fallen on over the past few months (after he took oath as the chief minster) for recovering from the strain of relentless campaigning during last November&’s Assembly elections. He had then proved, once again, that he continued to be the party&’s sole trump card in the state elections. Now, the “Raja Saab” is determined to win the Mandi seat for his wife Mrs Pratibha Singh, the Congress candidate.
The “Rani Sahiba” is a gentle lady, equally determined, and had earned considerable goodwill ~ both as the six-time chief minister&’s wife and a former MP from the Mandi constituency. The impression that a chief minister&’s wife could bring in more goodies for the constituency than any other candidate may work in her favour this time.
Mrs Singh often iterates the point made by her husband ~ that the Mandi parliamentary constituency has been their “karma bhoomi”. Her son Vikramaditya has also been canvassing along the familiar lines ~ his mother spent “every penny” received under the MPLAD scheme on the constituency while she was the MP during 2004-2009. He also credits her with bringing several big projects, including an IIT, the ESIC medical college and hospital, and the famous Rohtang tunnel connecting Manali to the remote tribal belt, to Mandi. However, it will not be a cakewalk for the chief minister&’s wife this time around.
She is up against the BJP&’s Mr Jairam Thakur. Mr Thakur was once president of the party&’s state unit and the rural development minister in the Prem Kumar Dhumal government. Hailing from Mandi, the “local boy” has a clean image and has stayed clear of controversies. The low profile, mild-mannered young man knows he is up against a formidable candidate. As a sitting MLA, he was reluctant to fight an election so soon, but yielded to some party bigwigs’ persuasion ~ a point drummed up by all Congress workers canvassing for Mrs Singh.
Both candidates filed their nominations amidst unprecedented show of pomp and strength ~ with all top party functionaries by their side, followed by huge public rallies. The by-election is being dubbed as a curtain-raiser for the Lok Sabha polls next year ~ perhaps erroneously so. Whatever the result, it is unlikely to reflect on Lok Sabha poll, since Central issues and the UPA government&’s performance will be the main factors then. However, whoever wins the bypoll is likely to be fielded again and also retain the seat in 2014.
If Mr Thakur, the BJP candidate, loses this time, the party will field him again in 2014, picking up the threads of the campaign, and the goodwill and the votes garnered this time ~ that seems to be its strategy.
Campaigners on both sides are harping on the same points. The Congress talks about the previous Dhumal regime&’s “wrong deeds”, like phone-tapping, sale of land and other interests to outsiders, among other things. It is likely to step up its campaign to bag the seat after its recent drubbing in the Gujarat, Bihar and West Bengal bypolls. The party high-command in Delhi is reportedly keen on registering a win here, so it could serve as a morale-booster. The BJP, on the other hand, is depending on people&’s “negative perception” of the UPA government; the state government&’s “penchant for renaming schemes” (including those named after  Himachal&’s favourite Mr Atal Behari Vajpayee); its “non-performance” in the last five months in power; and its “failure to carry out election promises.
Rival factions in both parties have come together for the bypoll. Mr Shanta Kumar and Mr Dhumal of the BJP are seen canvassing together. Such new bonhomie is visible in the Congress ranks also; the former transport minister Mr GS Bali, whose differences with the chief minister are well known, is seen rubbing shoulders and singing praises of Mr Virbhadra Singh. The Congress has an additional advantage ~ Kullu strongman Mr Maheshwar Singh, a former MP from the same constituency left BJP last year to form his own party, which has now decided to oppose BJP and support the Congress candidate indirectly. Mr Maheshwar has considerable influence in the Kullu-Manali segment of the constituency.
On the lighter side, 23 June, the polling day, happens to be Mr Virbhadra Singh&’s birthday. He has asked voters to give him a “birthday gift” in the form of a Congress victory. Mr Shanta Kumar of the BJP, as well as other campaigners, have responded in kind, often saying, “At this age, the chief minister needs his wife to look after him at home and not be far away in Delhi. He is asking for a strange gift and being unfair to himself! Please don’t divide the family. Give him the right gift by electing our candidate Jairam Thakur”.
The diplomat that he is, Mr Virbhadra Singh has chosen not to respond to that; instead, he has a good word for Mr Kumar: “He is one of the very few good men in the BJP”.

The writer is the Shimla-based correspondent of The Statesman