SHIMLA: The ruling BJP is hoping for an encore on the back of its development agenda, while the opposition Congress is urging voters to go by the four-decade old tradition of voting out incumbents in Himachal Pradesh which goes to poll on Saturday.
More than 55 lakh voters in the hill state will decide the fate of 412 candidates, including Chief Minister Jairam Thakur, former CM Virbhadhra Singh's son Vikramaditya Singh and former BJP chief Satpal Singh Satti, in the elections in 68 constituencies across the state.
For the ruling BJP, Prime Minister Narendra Modi has led the campaign from the front, wrapping up his canvassing with a personal appeal to voters of the state, where he said every vote cast for the BJP symbol "lotus" will enhance his strength.
BJP president J P Nadda, Union Home Minister Amit Shah, Uttar Pradesh Chief Minister Yogi Adityanath and Union ministers Rajnath Singh, Nitin Gadkari, Smriti Irani and Anurag Thakur held a series of poll meetings apart from public outreach while the opposition Congress has principally banked on general secretary Priyanka Gandhi Vadra.
For the Congress, which has been on a downhill electorally since the last two election cycles, wresting Himachal Pradesh from the BJP is a matter of survival.
The stakes are high for the grand old party which has installed a non-Gandhi Congress president after 24 years, with former chief Rahul Gandhi giving the campaign circuit a complete miss.
The Congress has lost in nine states over two years, including West Bengal, Kerala, Assam, Puducherry in 2021 and Punjab, Uttar Pradesh, Uttarakhand, Goa and Manipur this year.
The Congress is banking on anti-incumbency and is raising issues of price rise, unemployment and old pension scheme in this election to woo the voters and bring about a change.
For the BJP, a Himachal win would come as a feather in the cap of Modi, who has coined the slogan of "pro-incumbency" in context of the party.
It has also asked voters to change the "riwaaz" by re-electing BJP as the "double engine" regime in the state will continue to work for all round development.
The state has a history of voting out the incumbent.
BJP chief J P Nadda earlier told PTI that the party had emerged as a trend-setting force with people choosing to re-elect its incumbent governments and preferring it over other parties, where the BJP is not in power.
A victory in Himachal would also boost the BJP's chances in the nine state elections due next year, including the all-important Hindi heartland states of Rajasthan, Chhattisgarh and Madhya Pradesh, and later in the 2024 general elections.
New entrant Aam Aadmi Party (AAP)'s campaign in Himachal remained highly muted with the contest principally shaping up as a direct one between the BJP and the Congress in line with past trends.
On poll eve, both the BJP and the Congress claimed they were headed towards a majority and would form the government.
Political observers, meanwhile, said the last minute swing through door-to-door campaigns allowed on Friday could also count in the end-game.
The BJP has consciously worked to woo the significant women voters of the state who have been outnumbering their male counterparts in all elections starting 1998.
The party has also released a standalone manifesto for women in an attempt to woo them.
The BJP has promised implementation of Uniform Civil Code and eight lakh jobs in the state, while the restoration of the old pension scheme, 300 units of free power and a Rs 680-crore StartUp fund are among the promises made by the Congress.
Chief Minister Thakur is contesting from Seraj in Mandi while former BJP chief Satti is trying his luck from Una.
Urban Development Minister Suresh Bhardwaj is contesting from Kasumpti, Congress CLP leader Mukesh Agnihotri from Haroli, Vikramaditya Singh from Shimla Rural, former HPCC chief and Campaign Committee chief Sukhwinder Singh Sukhu from Nadaun and Congress Manifesto Committee chief Dhani Ram Shandil in Solan.
A total of 1,21,409 voters are above the age of 80, including 1,136 centenarians. Of the total voters, 28,54,945 are male and 27,37,845 female voters in the state, which saw a polling percentage of 75.57 per cent in the 2017 assembly polls. This is up from 73.5 per cent polling in the 2012 assembly polls.
There are only 24 women candidates in the fray this time, against 19 in 2017 and 34 in the 2012 assembly polls.
The voting is scheduled from 8 am to 5 pm and the Election Commission has set up a total of 7,884 polling stations, including three auxiliary polling stations in far flung areas.
Of these, 789 are vulnerable booths and 397 critical ones.
The EC has also set up its highest booth in Tashigang, Kaza in Spiti area of Lahaul Spiti district at a height of 15,256 feet that would cater to 52 voters....