The Telegraph
Since 1st March, 1999
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Hills are deaf to the sound of polling
- People disinterested a week ahead of elections, big guns yet to kick off campaign

Shimla, Feb. 19: Keep climbing, don’t fly.

It’s the truth that politicians have realised over the past three days as campaigning for the February 26 Assembly elections in Himachal Pradesh entered its last week.

Congress president Sonia Gandhi is yet to step into the state. Her scheduled heli-hopping campaign in the Kangra Valley yesterday got cancelled. The day before, BJP chief M. Venkaiah Naidu’s chopper could not take off.

The same goes for Gujarat chief minister Narendra Modi’s plans to land in the state the same day as his party chief. The Hindutva icon, however, made it to the hill state later.

It is not just the big guns who failed to fire the poll salvo for their parties. The plans of top state leaders of both the BJP and the Congress have also gone haywire the last three days because of the fickle Himachal weather.

With just six days left for the campaigning, the rival poll managers are keeping fingers crossed as Sonia, Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee and his deputy L.K. Advani are scheduled to make flying stops across the state.

Yet, the moot question is whether the candidates would really lose much if their top national leaders cannot finally make it. For one, there is hardly any visible wave, barring of course the cold wave, in favour or against the ruling BJP and the Opposition Congress — the two main contenders.

So far, public meetings and rallies by national leaders, poll observers here point out, have hardly attracted “encouraging” crowds. “It is not one of those typical Himachal elections that we are currently witnessing,” says Sohan Lal, a former Congress legislator and a rebel candidate this time.

It is rather an “unfamiliar” poll pitch. The BJP has realised it early enough that its Hindutva-centric campaign would not click. The terrorism issue, too, is not working well enough. No surprise then that there is more curiosity about Modi’s scheduled campaign in the media than within the BJP camp.

“We are fighting the election on the strength of Atalji (Vajpayee)’s leadership at the national-level and the P.K. Dhumal government’s performance in the last five years,” says Ajay Sharma, a state BJP spokesperson.

That both the main contenders are on an unconventional poll turf is evident from the entry of equally unconventional characters into the battle arena — Punjab chief minister Amarinder Singh for the Congress and Modi for the BJP.

If Amarinder fired the first salvo at Dhumal by “exposing” corruption, Modi has sought to take the steam out of the Punjab chief minister’s campaign by naming two of his ministers in an alleged sex scandal.

But Modi’s counter-attack may have come too late as Amarinder’s charges against Dhumal are already the talking points of the Congress’ electioneering. Realising there is no anti-incumbency factor at work against the BJP, the Congress is hammering on the corruption theme.

What will, however, matter is the ability of the two parties to reach out to the voters in the 65 constituencies that go to polls on February 26 (polling in the remaining three seats in the 68-member Assembly will be held in summer). It is virtually like climbing the mountain peaks — conveying the message persuasively to voters instead of making public speeches. Which means conducting an organised campaign.

While the BJP is known to be better in the art, the Congress seems to have taken a leaf out of its rival’s poll manual. The party’s central leadership has positioned at least two AICC representatives, one of whom is a Congress Working Committee member, in each of the four Lok Sabha segments.

This is, perhaps, why the Congress campaign managers are not unduly perturbed that Sonia could not address rallies on Tuesday. It is also the reason why BJP managers do not make much out of the campaign by Modi, a one-time BJP state in-charge.

What the two main contenders, who have put up candidates in all 65 constituencies, are worried about is the implications of the virtual vertical divide within their camps.

For the BJP, Dhumal and Union rural development minister Shanta Kumar might have declared a pre-poll ceasefire in their faction rivalries, but many of their camp followers — up to two dozen by some reckoning — are in the fray as rebel and Independent candidates. Some of them will hurt the official nominees.

In the Congress camp, too, former chief minister Virbhadra Singh and HPCC chief Vidya Stokes hardly hide their rivalry even at this late stage.

Then, there are 23 rebel candidates — all of whom have been expelled from the party. But what is really worrying the Congress is that at least half of these rebels are being apparently backed by rival camp leaders.

In a close fight in most constituencies, which is what politicians and poll observers foresee, the presence of rebels could hurt the official nominees.

The two parties also have to contend with former Union minister Sukh Ram’s Himachal Vikas Party. Unlike in the last Assembly elections five years ago, Sukh Ram is not wasting his energies and resources in all the segments.

More judicious this time, he is targeting his Mandi home districts and neighbouring areas. And nobody, not even local Congress leaders, believe he is a spent force in his Mandi backyard, which accounts for 10 seats in the Assembly.

Candidates of Mayavati’s Bahujan Samaj Party, Sharad Pawar’s Nationalist Congress Party and Ram Vilas Paswan’s Lok Janshakti Party are trying their luck in 23, 28 and 32 constituencies, respectively. As parties they do not pose any threat to either the Congress or the BJP, as caste politics is played more within the framework of the two main rivals.

But then, candidates from these parties could still disturb the Congress and the BJP in a close fight, solely on the strength their local clout.

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