This time the elections in the hill state of Himachal Pradesh are politically complex. This is because the Lok Sabha polls to the four parliamentary seats are combined with six Assembly by-polls. Add to that the fate of three independents candidates who had tendered their resignations hangs in balance awaiting a High Court verdict.

It is important to understand how this complex scenario has come about and what kind of bearing it will have on the state. The trigger of course was the recent Rajya Sabha polls.

Six Congress legislators had defied the party whip to vote in favour of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) candidate Harsh Mahajan who had been fielded against Abhishek Manu Singhvi of the Congress.

The three independents had also voted in favour of the BJP candidates. Mahajan won by a draw of lots following a tie as the strength of Congress legislators who had voted for Singhvi following the party whip had come down to 34 in the house of 68 members.

The victory had also cast shadows of doubt on the survival of the Congress government in the state under Sukhvinder Singh Sukhu.

It is here that Singhvi, and senior Congress leader from Karnataka D. K. Shivakumar took charge. The result was disqualification of the six Congress MLAs for defying the party whip for the voting on the state Budget and the Finance Bill.

These six MLAs went on to join the saffron camp, after a drama of being kept in Chandigarh and Uttarakhand. In order to further make a political statement, the BJP went on to field all of them on its ticket for the Assembly by-polls.

The three independents, Hoshiyar Singh from Dehra, KL Thakur from Nalagarh and Ashish Sharma from Hamirpur, who had voted for the BJP candidate tendered their resignations from the state Assembly in March and went on to join the BJP the next day. They too were looking to contest the by-polls on the party ticket.

Here too, the Congress played another political move with the Speaker Kuldeep Singh Pathania not accepting these resignations, following complaints that they had done so under duress. The three after sitting on a dharna outside the office of the Speaker had gone to the Court looking for an early verdict and hoping to contest the by-poll along with the six others.

At the same time Revenue Minister Jagat Singh Negi in a petition had urged the Speaker that the three MLAs are disqualified under anti defection law as the three had joined the BJP immediately after submitting their resignations.

The three on their part had said that since they had handed over their resignations in person to the Speaker and without any duress, there was no justification in delaying a decision on the issue. They had also met Governor Shiv Pratap Shukla seeking his intervention.

The matter pertaining to these three now stands in the High Court where following dissenting judgments earlier this week, it is likely to be referred to a Single Bench of a third judge.

It is obvious that this can further delay the verdict. They would not be able to contest the by-polls since the notification for the Lok Sabha and by-polls in the state have already been issued.

Amidst this potboiler comes the all important campaign for the Lok Sabha to the four constituencies of Shimla, Mandi, Hamirpur and Kangra in the state. The stakes of the BJP as well as the Congress are high in this state even though there are just four seats to be won.

The BJP had won all four seats in 2019 but the Congress wrested the Mandi seat through Pratibha Singh in a by-poll in 2021.

The BJP’s national president Jagat Prakash Nadda comes from Bilaspur while union minister Anurag Thakur who has been fielded on Hamirpur seat again. In the past Prime Minister Narendra Modi has worked in the organisational set up of the party in this hill state and he often refers to the state as his ‘karambhoomi’.

The party has also fielded Bollywood actress Kangana Ranaut from the Mandi seat. Her penchant for raking up controversies through her statements is well known. The people see her as a direct nominee from the top echelons of the party.

The party has fielded its sitting Lok Sabha member Suresh Kumar Kashyap on the Shimla seat while the ticket for the Kangra seat has been given to Rajiv Bhardwaj who is from the organisational ranks.

For the Congress the stakes are equally high. These elections are the first litmus test on the electoral turf for Sukhu. The party is looking forward to building on the Assembly poll victory of 2022.

The party has fielded Vinod Sultanpuri on the Shimla reserved seat. He is the sitting MLA from Kasauli and is the son of K. D. Sultanpuri who was elected to the Lok Sabha from this parliamentary constituency on six consecutive occasions in the 1980s and 1990s.

Sitting Shimla (rural) legislator Vikramaditya Singh has been fielded on the Mandi seat. He is the son of former Chief Minister Virbhadra Singh and sitting MP Pratibha Singh.

The party candidate on the Hamirpur seat is former Una legislator Satpal Singh Raizada. He had shot to limelight in 2017 by defeating the then state BJP unit chief Satpal Singh Satti but had lost the 2022 assembly poll to the latter by a slender margin.

On the Kangra seat, the party had placed its bet on senior party leader Anand Sharma who is contesting a direct election after more than four decades. His choice has come as a surprise to many as for the major part of his political life he has been a Rajya Sabha member from Himachal Pradesh and Rajasthan.

The last time he had contested a direct election was on the Shimla Assembly seat in 1982 against Daulat Ram Chauhan of the BJP. He had lost the election but had contested the result in court following which Chauhan’s election had been set aside.

But he did not contest again as he had been elected to the Rajya Sabha by the time the by-poll was announced. What makes the contest in Kangra interesting is that both the candidates are new to the electoral turf of Kangra that sends maximum legislators to the state assembly. It’s a battle of untested players on the cards.

This time the Left is not contesting on any of the parliamentary seats, making it a direct contest between the two traditional rivals of the Congress and the BJP although some smaller players will be fielding their candidates as well.

The campaign till now for both the Congress and the BJP has been well defined. Sukhu has been leading the charge for the Congress. He has been playing up the Centre’s ‘discrimination’ against the state during the unprecedented disaster that took place last year.

Even among the common people there is considerable anger against the centre on this issue. One question being raised is what stopped Prime Minister Modi from visiting the state and giving a healing touch when he says that Himachal is very close to his heart?

“Had there been a BJP government in the state he would have rushed here on the first available opportunity,” is another refrain that one gets to hear often.

Coming back to Sukhu’s campaign, the second major issue being raked up by the Congress is the “BJP’s attempt to destabilise the state government by orchestrating defections of six Congress MLAs at the time of the Rajya Sabha polls”. Sukhu has been saying that “the people will punish these six former MLAs”.

On Thursday, while speaking at the Zorawar stadium in Dharamshala after the filing of Anand Sharma’s nomination, Sukhu said, “The sold-out MLAs of Himachal Pradesh will go behind the bars. Investigation is going on and there will be big revelations after its completion.

“Some of them have become land mafia, drug mafia and some have become mining mafia. Dharamshala MLA also sold himself in the political market in 14 months.”

Claiming that for the first time in the history of Himachal Pradesh, his government has earned the highest additional revenue of Rs 2200 crore in a year, the CM said if the people of the state support the Congress in closing the doors of corruption, the government's purse will be more open for every section of the society than before.

“Our entire cabinet is engaged in making the state self-reliant. Jairam Thakur (his predecessor from the BJP) slept for five years as the chief minister; hence the state treasury was looted. BJP leaders have caused huge losses to the state treasury.

“This will also be revealed in the coming time. The Congress government is facing a political challenge in the court of the public on its 15-month tenure. It is in the hands of the public to teach a lesson to those who buy votes on the basis of currency notes.”

Observers point out that by playing the ‘victim card’ Sukhu has been successful in gaining traction to some extent across the state. They also underline that the developments that had come on the occasion of the Rajya Sabha polls along with the politics around brutal use of money power as is being alleged is not acceptable to the people of the state.

Seeking support for Anand Sharma, Sukhu said that on winning his voice will be heard at the national level. He said that the party candidate in Kangra was the one responsible for bringing major projects to the state like India Institute of Technology (IIT) in Mandi, Central University in Kangra, National Institute of Fashion Technology (NIFT) in Kangra, industrial park worth Rs 150 crore in Kandrori, regional office of Tea Board in Palampur etc. He added that Anand Sharma is contesting on the Kangra seat at the behest of the party high command.

Claiming that his government has worked in the public interest during its 15 month tenure, Sukhu attacked the BJP for letting down the people of the state during the disaster. “Such a big disaster occurred in the state, but the central government did not give even a penny. Even as small children broke their piggy banks and donated, the BJP remained busy only in politics and did not heal the wounds of the people, “he said.

In Mandi he chose to attack Kangana and Jairam Thakur while underlining that the forthcoming polls, saying that the Lok Sabha and the by-polls were “a battle between honesty and dishonesty”.

Making a tongue in cheek remark he said, “Former chief minister Jairam Thakur is going to prove a flop film director for the third time as his new film ‘Kangana Mandi ke Angana’ is surely going to flop like his two earlier ventures of ‘Riwaz Badlenge’ and ‘Operation Lotus’.”

He described Vikramaditya Singh as the ‘young hero’ of Congress politics while praising his role during the disaster.

He said that Jairam Thakur was “only the CM of his Assembly constituency of Seraj and got development done only there”.

Sukhu claimed that his government has increased the purchase price of cow milk to Rs 45 per litre and buffalo milk to Rs 55 per litre and that this “is just the beginning as the state government is making dedicated efforts to strengthen the rural economy”.

He said that the government increased the daily wage of Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (MNREGA) to Rs 300, increased the minimum wage to Rs 400, increased the diet money of police from Rs 210 to Rs 1000, made schemes for widows, gave four percent dearness allowance to the employees and cleared their arrears.

Calling BJP ‘anti women’ Sukhu added that the present government had started a scheme to provide a pension of Rs 1500 per month to women in the state but the BJP leaders are repeatedly approaching the Election Commission to stop it.

For the BJP, Jairam Thakur and Anurag Thakur have been leading the charge against the Sukhu government and the Congress. The party has adopted a two pronged strategy to fight the electoral battle at hand.

On one hand it is propagating the promises made by the central government in its manifesto, and on the other it is attacking the Congress for failing to keep its promises made ahead of the 2022 assembly elections. The leaders are mainly seeking votes in the name of Modi.

Jairam Thakur has been saying that “the Sukhu government has worked to make the public unhappy since the first day of its tenure. They stopped the MLA fund, closed down institutions, and did not fulfil the guarantees on the basis of which they came to power. Not only this, they did not even respect their MLAs.”

In his address on Tuesday, Suresh Kashyap said during the campaign, “In Himachal, inflation increased since the Congress came to power. Neither did he (Sukhu) fulfil the guarantees nor did he understand the expectations of the MLAs. If a chief minister does not listen to the MLAs, how will he listen to the people of the state?”

A factor that will play a hidden role in the polls is the Agniveer scheme of the government that has annoyed the youth to a large extent. Himachal is a state from where youngsters join the armed forces in large numbers.

The farmers and horticulturists too will be playing a role. The Sanyukta Kisan Manch (SKM) after a recent meeting highlighted the discontent of the peasantry.

In a statement issued by Harish Chauhan and Sanjay Chauhan who are co-coordinator and co-coordinator of the Manch, it was pointed out that due to the policies being implemented by the government, there is a continuous decline in the production and productivity of farmers and horticulturists. Alongside, they are not getting fair prices for their crops in the markets.

“In the last few years, due to reduction in the subsidy given by the government on fertilisers and other input items, there has been a huge increase in their prices. Along with this, due to the Free Trade Agreements (FTA) made by the government with various countries and recently the central government reducing the import duty on American apples from 70 percent to 50 percent, a large quantity of apples from abroad came to various markets of the country.

“Due to this apple growers and traders have suffered huge losses this year despite less produce. It is natural that it will have a widespread impact on next year's crop as well,” they said.

It was decided to support only that party that will address the issues raised in the SKM manifesto. “The central government has not implemented policies in the interest of farmers and horticulturists. SKM has given memorandums and demands to Prime Minister Modi and his ministers several times, but none of the demands have been accepted till date.

“Modi and the BJP had promised in the election campaign of 2014 and 2019 that farmers will be given Minimum Support Price (MSP) for crops on the basis of Swaminathan Commission on the basis of C2+50%, import duty on apple will be increased, loans will be waived off, subsidies will be given on fertilisers, pesticides, fungicides, agricultural equipment and other input items. But the BJP government did not implement the promises it had made during the elections,” the statement added.

“We have a scenario where the by-polls are taking precedence over the Lok Sabha polls as the survival of the state government and Sukhu himself are at stake. The Lok Sabha polls have their own significance but people are more interested in the by-polls,” senior political observer Dharam Prakash Gupta who is based in Mandi said.

The battle lines for the six Assembly seat by-polls are also drawn where the BJP has fielded the imports from the Congress Rajinder Rana, Sudhir Sharma, Inder Dutt Lakhanpal, Ravi Thakur, Chaitanya Sharma and Davinder Bhutto respectively from Sujanpur, Dharamshala, Barsar, Lahaul-Spiti, Gagret and Kutlehar constituencies.

The Congress has fielded Captain Ranjit Singh, Devinder Singh Jaggi, Subhash Chand, Anuradha Rana, Rakesh Kalia and Vivek Sharma to take on them respectively.