With a little more than two months to go for the Assembly polls, politics in the hill state of Himachal Pradesh has reached the point where battle lines stand drawn. The formal campaigns by individual candidates are set to take off once the tickets are finalised.

At the moment things stand at a stage where a lot of planning, scheming and plotting is underway, to secure tickets. Indulging in this are those seeking a ticket for themselves, and senior leaders of the main contesting parties seeking a poll berth for their loyalists.

It is clear that the main contest is once again expected to be bipolar, with the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and the opposition Congress fighting for power.

The rookie Aam Aadmi Party's (AAP) campaign had taken off with a bang but it seems to have lost steam with its national convener and Delhi Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal focusing on Gujarat, the BJP's traditional stronghold and the home turf of Prime Minister Narendra Modi and union Home Minister Amit Shah.

One thing needs to be kept in mind that the Assembly polls in states, whether they are in Gujarat and Himachal towards the end of this year, or in Karnataka and some other states next year, are going to have a bearing on the 2024 Parliamentary polls.

But the AAP cannot be written off in Himachal Pradesh yet. For the party it is turning out to be a case of 'if not now, maybe later' as it continues to test the waters with events and programmes on the issues of governance.

Many observers say that its candidates with whatever votes they manage to garner, can play spoilsport in constituencies where victory margins are small. This means that both the Congress and the BJP must not forget the recent Uttarakhand polls.

"When you go to the villages you will come across a small segment of people who talk of giving AAP a chance since they are frustrated with the two traditional parties. Their number is small but that element of trying a new force is visible," disclosed an observer from Kullu.

In addition to this the Left too will be fielding candidates on some of the seats in the House of 68 members. Sources say that at the moment there is talk of the Left parties contesting 17 seats. It remains to be seen how many they actually contest.

The CPM has a sitting member Rakesh Singha in the state Assembly who has constantly made headlines standing up for pro-people issues. Whether it was staging a dharna to address the concerns of Kashmiri labourers during the Covid-19 lockdown, or launching protests for appointment of doctors in government health facilities, he was there. The Left has a presence in certain pockets of the state.

Coming to the BJP and the Congress, the contest promises to be an interesting one on account of the forces and factors at play. To begin with both the parties stand faction ridden which makes the ticket distribution all the more interesting.

Besides the sitting Chief Minister Jai Ram Thakur, the central leaders such as Union Minister Anurag Thakur and the BJP's national president Jagat Prakash Nadda also have high stakes in the politics in the state. People feel that Jai Ram Thakur is battling anti-incumbency at this point of time, and will have to bear the flak if the BJP fails to retain power in the state.

An interesting phenomenon that has been visible over the last few days is the re-emergence of former Chief Minister Prem Kumar Dhumal on the political horizon. He is Anurag Thakur's father and many say Dhumal is now preparing the ground for his son's return home at some point in the future.

People were taken by surprise when Rajya Sabha member Indu Goswami reportedly asked the voters of Sujanpur to ensure his victory from the seat. Dhumal had lost from Sujanpur in 2017, while the BJP came to power, and had to make way for Jai Ram Thakur to be the state's CM.

The question now doing the rounds is whether Dhumal will contest this time. And if he does, will the BJP deviate from its norm of not fielding leaders in elections if they are more than 75 years of age?

Meanwhile, Rajeev Bindal being made chairman of the election management committee has an interesting political dimension to it. He is seen as Nadda's man on the ground at this point of time.

The scenario with regards to the Congress is also the same. The leadership continues to project a united face at the top but when it comes to individual constituencies there are at least three to four contenders. Each has an allegiance to different factions who are eying the tickets.

It is well known that when denied tickets many such elements contest at rebels. Observers feel that one good thing that happened with the collective leadership being projected by the party is that the departure of its workers to forces like AAP was largely stemmed.

The joke doing the round is that the BJP is looking at the Congress for repeating the government in Himachal Pradesh. This reflects the common sentiment that persistent infighting can spell disaster for the grand old party.

"But at the same time the BJP will have to go in for replacing at least one third of its sitting MLAs, including some ministers. It is well known that Assembly polls in Himachal are fought on hyper local issues and people want to vote in new faces. As it is there are many sitting MLAs from the ruling party with whom the people are pretty annoyed," said an observer.

There have been reports of 1347 applicants having approached the Congress party for tickets. This is a threefold rise as compared to the last time. The party recently came out with a promise of 10 public guarantees on returning to power.

State Congress president Pratibha Singh spelt out these guarantees: reverting to the old pension scheme as demanded by the government employees; creating five lakh jobs; financial assistance of Rs 1500 to women between 18 to 60 years of age; 300 units of free power; fixing a minimum support price for fruit produce; interest free loans worth Rs 680 crores for start-ups; quality education with four English medium schools in every constituency; mobile health facility vans; a commitment to purchase 10 litres of milk from those rearing cows and purchasing cow dung at Rs 2 per kg to promote organic farming.

The ongoing agitation of fruit growers is set to have a bearing on the poll results at least in upper Himachal areas. There is unrest among fruit growers spread over 21 constituencies in the state. The fruit growers under the banner of Sanyukta Kisan Manch (SKM) had approached the government with a 20 point demand charter.

A high powered committee formed by the government that is looking into the issues is scheduled to meet again on September 12. The agitation was intensified when the fruit growers courted arrest on August 17. They later held demonstrations outside the controlled atmosphere stores set up by corporate entities. Things have taken a turn for the worse with the corporate entities reducing procurement prices.

"The onus is simply on the government that has allowed gross violation of the Agricultural Produce Market Committee (APMC) Act that has resulted in misery for the fruit growers," SKM leader Sanjay Chauhan told this reporter. The SKM represents the interests of growers cutting across party affiliations.

"By failing to resolve the issues of fruit growers the BJP seems to have surrendered many seats in the apple growing regions of the state," pointed an observer.

But Jai Ram Thakur continues to fight with his back to the wall. He continues to play up the development claims under his government. A major recent achievement is the allocation of a bulk drug pharmaceutical park to the state by the centre.

Thakur claimed that the prime objectives of the pharma park to Himachal Pradesh and other states are augmenting domestic manufacturing, ensuring drug security and reducing the dependency of bulk drug on China.

He said the union cabinet had approved the scheme of a bulk drug park on March 21, 2020 and subsequently guidelines were issued on July 21, 2020. The evaluation criteria were prescribed for submitting the proposal.

As per the guidelines, 90% of the project cost with the maximum limit of Rs 1000 crores was to be provided by the Government of India's department of pharmaceuticals. Thakur said the expected direct employment potential is about 15,000-20,000 persons.

Apart from this, other socio-economic activities related to this project such as housing, township, vehicle requirements of the park etc would have a multiplier and multidimensional effect on the state's economy. This park would attract huge investment in the backward and forward activities such as packaging, pharma formulation etc.

Jai Ram Thakur is now racing against time, announcing sops regularly. Among a major decision taken in the last Cabinet meeting his government gave its nod to grant child adoption leave of 180 days to the regular female employees of the state government.

At the same time the BJP continues to launch counter offensives at the Congress questioning the feasibility of implementing the guarantees that it has promised to the electorate.

But there is massive resentment among the people on issues of employment and inflation. In addition to this the people are reeling under the damage occurring because of the monsoons. Media reports have put the toll in the rain related incidents at 284 in the state. People are particularly angry over the threat to life posed by the projects of four laning of various highways.

The rural folk are also grappling with the outbreak of lumpy skin disease (LSD) in cattle. According to Himachal Kisan Sabha leader Dr Kuldip Tanwar, "some cattle owners do not even have the resources to dispose of carcasses. The government must provide immediate compensation to those who have lost cattle".

Tanwar added that the government needs to undertake emergency measures to deal with the disaster. This includes immediate recruitment of veterinary experts against vacant posts and provision of extra budget to deal with the situation. He said that approximately 500 cattle are getting infected on a daily basis in the state.

Kisan Sabha teams are visiting the villages across the state these days and stated that till now there is no coordination seen among the government departments to tackle the problem. The Kisan Sabha also attacked the government for not declaring the LSD an epidemic. It has demanded a loan waiver for those who had purchased cattle that have now perished.

All these problems cropping up ahead of the polls add to the worries of a government that is already battling anti incumbency. Sources on the ground also say that the BJP attributing its various failures to the Covid-19 outbreak and subsequent lockdowns is also not being accepted by the masses. It remains to be seen if the opposition can convert this resentment into votes.