It had been pretty evident that Himachal Pradesh was heading towards a photo finish in the assembly polls by the time the campaign had ended on November 10. This small hill state with 68 assembly constituencies had gone to the polls on November 12. Right from the start it was a battle between the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) under Chief Minister Jai Ram Thakur and its traditional rival the Congress.

The election was all about 'Rivaaz' (tradition) where the state had been choosing alternative governments for four decades. The third entry in these polls in the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) that was eyeing a spillover effect of its landslide victory in neigbouring Punjab earlier this year could not take off in this hill state.

Till the filing of this report the Congress was leading on 39 seats while the BJP was second on 26 seats. There were three independents in the lead. In all probability the state is set to continue with its Rivaaz.

But the Congress has a problem on its hands when it comes to choosing the new chief minister in the event of it being invited to form the government. This is on account of factionalism and there being multiple aspirants for the post. Counting was still on and the margins on some of the seats were razor thin.

Till a few months back, it appeared that the Congress had the polls on a platter. But the evident hard work of the BJP cadres and some very aggressive campaign by the BJP's central leadership led by none other than the Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Union Home Minister Amit Shah made it a rollercoaster of a battle.

The vacuum that came into being by the demise of former Chief Minister Virbhadra Singh was deeply felt by the Congress as there was no leader in the party who could match Virbhadra's charisma and pan Himachal image.

The BJP government in the state was facing a heavy anti-incumbency. This was pretty evident from the by-poll results of three assembly and Mandi parliamentary seats held exactly one year ago where the Congress had won all these seats.

This was against the normal trend of the ruling party winning the by-polls. In the Mandi seat that had been won by the BJP in 2019 by a margin of more than four lakh votes, the Congress candidate Pratibha Singh who is the wife of Virbhadra Singh climbed this huge gap to register a victory.

The biggest factor that the Congress banked upon was reverting to the old pension scheme for the government employees. With employees accounting for a major chunk of the voters and being openly critical of the ruling dispensation for not adhering to their demands, the BJP had a tough task on its hands right from the beginning. Jai Ram Thakur government was already facing flak on the issues of employment and inflation.

To make matters worse there had been scandals like leakage of question papers for the Police recruitment examination. The Agniveer initiative of the central government pertaining to short term recruitment to the armed forces had also put the saffron party on the back foot with public anger simmering against it.

Himachal Pradesh is among those states that send a large number of youngsters to the armed forces as well as the paramilitary forces, particularly from the districts of Kangra, Hamirpur, Mandi and Bilaspur. The anger against the Agniveer initiative was a 'passive' factor in these polls as the public demonstration was not visible but on an individual level everyone was speaking against it.

Underemployment marked by low wages in the private sector and the anger against the contractual mode of employment were another major factors that the BJP was up against. With high education levels and there being a critical need of the state to invest more for creating jobs, the ruling BJP's stand on these issues were not acceptable to the people.

But an interesting facet was that the anti-incumbency was against Jai Ram Thakur led state government and not Modi. This led Modi to regain quite a lot of lost ground of the BJP as he went about reminding the people of his old connection with the state where he had been a pivot in the organizational structure of the BJP in the mid-nineties. He would call out to people by their first names and this struck an instant cord with the people.

The BJP including Jai Ram Thakur went about seeking votes in the name of Modi while keeping the performance of its government in the state in the background.

For the Congress it was senior leader Priyanka Gandhi who was doing the same as she went around reminding the people of the connection her grandmother Indira Gandhi had with the hard working and sincere people of this state.

The BJP was fighting the battle under Jai Ram Thakur with its national president Jagat Prakash Nadda calling the shots. In the process the group identified with former chief minister Prem Kumar Dhumal was ignored when it came to ticket distribution. Even Dhumal was denied a ticket while he had initially shown interest in contesting the polls. This led to a large-scale rebellion among the BJP aspirants with several of them throwing their hat in the ring. Here too it was Modi who was seen trying to convince them to not contest against the party's official candidates as was visible in a video that had gone viral.

The rebellions in the Congress ranks were something on the expected lines. What was interesting was the party going into the poll battle under a collective leadership to overcome the rampant factionalism and there being too many aspirants to the post of the chief minister in the event of a victory for the party. Having eaten crow in Goa earlier this year, the party was also wary of attempts by the BJP to form the government at any cost by using various permissible tools.

The Congress has a strong contender in Pratibha Singh who is the Lok Sabha member from Mandi at present. Then there is Sukhvinder Singh Sukhu who has evolved as a popular leader within the party and has support of a large number of young MLAs of the party. He was contesting from Nadaun in Hamirpur. The Leader of Opposition in the outgoing assembly Mukesh Agnihotri who was contesting from Haroli seat in Una is another strong contender for the post. Party veteran Kaul Singh who was in fray from Darang in Mandi district and Asha Kumari who was contesting from Dalhousie were trailing at the time of filing this report.

The rookie AAP could not take off in the state. The biggest reason was its inability to find a credible face to lead the charge and there being no organizational structure on the ground. It had initially deputed the leaders from Punjab to take the campaign forward but developments like singer Sidhu Moosewala's murder and Simranjit Singh Mann of Akali Dal (Amritsar) winning the by-polls on Sangrur seat that was represented by Chief Minister Bhagwant Mann since 2014 compelled the party to put its own house in order first and revert to the roots in Punjab. Secondly, the party got traction in Gujarat and the top leadership focused more there. For the party it was a battle left for another day.