On the Indian map, Himachal Pradesh looks like an irregularly drawn circle or a badly drawn zero with the exception of the southern district of Sirmaur bottoming out. But more importantly, it is a zero-sum game for the high command of the two main political parties. If I sum up the sentiments of the voters of the hill state, as one of them said while going to vote, "The state is treated like the north-east of the north by the central leadership of both the BJP and the Congress."
With 68 Vidhan Sabha and four parliamentary seats, there is not much at stake. If Gujarat went to polls with all the gusto and vibrancy, Himachal did so as calmly and peacefully as the state is. It was treated like an "also going to polls state" by the national leaders of both parties. Gujarat elections seemed synonymous with the pride and pagri (reputation) of the respective parties. As a result, the dirtiest of politics the hill state saw, went unreported in the national media. A man who wanted to quit some months back, Virbhadra Singh became the Congress' chief ministerial face. And another man, who has been the chief minister of the state twice and the only mass leader of the BJP in the state, was given a seat, seemingly, to devise his defeat.
Prem Kumar Dhumal was given the most difficult seat - Sujanpur - to contest elections from, against his rival Rajinder Rana of the Congress. Dhumal wasn't happy. But another CM aspirant, Union health minister Jagat Prakash Nadda, was over the moon. And people said that if BJP comes to power, Nadda will be the CM. But Dhumal went completely silent, focusing on his seat and nothing else. And just nine days before the state went to polls, the BJP had to finally announce his name as the BJP's chief ministerial face.
Inside the Congress, the story wasn't exactly the same but wasn't much different either. The Virbhadra-rival within the party, 90-year-old Vidya Stokes had hung up her boots. Virbhadra too had almost called it quits.
And the party was almost leaderless. That is when Sonia Gandhi, who always disliked Virbhadra for his open defiance for close to 20 years, and who became the CM twice despite Sonia's disapproval, this time round had to send Rahul Gandhi to anoint him as Congress' potential CM face. Why this change of heart? Well, the answer is simple and can be found in the words of Vijay Singh Mankotia, former tourism minister, who once said, "Virbhadra brought me into politics, he liked me, but his problem was that a man should only grow to a certain stature in politics and not beyond. He would put a cap on your growth." And this happened till his son Vikramaditya grew up. He did not groom anybody. Thus, the Congress party had nobody to turn to in order to win elections but this 83-year-old man, who a few months ago, insiders say, wanted to retire.
Finally, when the nominations were filed, while canvassing in Theog, a constituency which was in news for being the epicentre of Gudiya rape and murder outrage, Virbhadra casually remarked while speaking at a rally about his own party candidate Deepak Rathore, a Rahul Gandhi man - "If you can't pluck the lotus with a hand (the Congress party symbol) use the sickle," alluding that voting for the CPI(M) candidate won't be a bad idea, sickle being the symbol of the Left party. This was around November 1 and Congress had started gaining ground.
At this juncture, Virbhadra thought he could select his favourite candidates to campaign for. That is when, BJP in a knee-jerk reaction decided to name Dhumal as the BJP's CM face. But the damage was already done as he was pitted against the most difficult candidate. The moment Nadda heard about it, he made a gradual disappearance from Bilaspur, a constituency from where he has contested elections in the past. With his disappearance, the campaigning on four seats in Bilaspur district where he had some presence went haywire.
After the self-sabotage in both parties by top leaderships at the Centre and in the state, now various exit polls say that BJP could come to power. And as a keen watcher of Himachal affairs, Visheshwar Negi, says jokingly, "If BJP comes to power this time round riding on anti-incumbency, the voters of Himachal Pradesh should actually invest in finding such a fair coin of probability so that during next elections in 2022, a coin is tossed up instead of holding polls." After all, the story of Himachal elections is so simple and predictable, that it is almost automated, like the apple crop, after each bumper harvest, the next crop is ruined by the hale-storm only to come back a year later much like the political parties revive after each five year wipeout.