Himachal Pradesh that goes to the polls on November 12 is once again witnessing an electoral battle on real issues. The issues are being aired and countered by the political leaders and their campaigners, while the public is silently observing what the politicians have to offer. The voters here are now weighing their options.

Unlike several other states where politicians are able to set narratives on communal issues and caste factors, the voter in Himachal Pradesh, refuses to be taken for a ride. They are focussed on issues that matter to them.

This makes the current polls all the more interesting. Here the question is whether the people are willing to give another chance to the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) despite it facing an anti incumbency mood. The BJP is still promising a lot through its 'double engine' propagation. Or will the people of HP want to once again revert to the grand old party – the Congress?

A visit by this reporter to some of the constituencies in lower parts of Kangra and Hamirpur districts established that the people are clear about their priorities. The issues that are dominating the poll narrative include the old pension scheme for the employees, followed by employment concerns among the youth and inflation.

A hidden issue is anger against the Agnipath scheme of recruitment in security forces. This is not a part of the political campaign narrative but is ranking high in the conscience of the masses.

A major challenge for reporters in this hill state is getting hold of neutral observers. A small state with a small population that is high on literacy, has resulted in people aligning with one side of the political spectrum or the other.

The Congress leaders including senior central leader Priyanka Gandhi have been attacking the BJP on the latter's failure in reverting to the old pension scheme. The party has promised to announce a reversal in the very first cabinet meeting if it forms the government.

But the BJP has a counter that was reflected by its leader Pawan Sharma in Nadaun constituency in Hamirpur when he told this reporter, "The old pension scheme has not been there for almost two decades now. What stopped the Congress from reverting to it when it was in power from 2012 to 2017? Secondly, this reversal can only be possible when there is a concurrence between the central and the state governments."

The Congress spokesperson in Dehra Sapan Sood said, "The Congress had wanted to revert to the old scheme but was voted out before it could initiate the process."

It is the issue of employment that is finding a central space among the voters who point out the multiple dimensions of the problems. An interaction with several people across Dhaliara, Dehra, Nadaun and Jwalaji revealed that there is anger among the people on there being no jobs in the first place and then on the underemployment.

They say that the educated youth is left in the lurch. Even the statistical claims over the Pradhan Mantri Kaushal Vikas Yojana (PMKVY) are being contested with people calling it a hogwash at several places.

"I run a computer training centre. The students after completing the course do not find jobs that fetch them more than Rs 5000 to Rs 8000 after working for four to five years at local enterprises. This works for them if they live in the houses owned by their parents within close proximity of their workplace but is definitely not enough to run a family on their own," pointed out Shashi Kumar who is supporting the Congress candidate Sukhvinder Singh Sukhu in Nadaun.

"You will find women from every family in the villages lining up for Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (MNREGA) jobs to pitch in to the earnings of the male members. This was not the case earlier in this area where traditional patriarchal norms have a strong presence," said Vijay Thakur who resides in a village close to Nadaun town.

A government employee from Dhaliara added to the narrative disclosing, "even the private agencies hiring for jobs like that of security guards or receptionists first ask the applicants to deposit Rs 1000 for registration and another Rs 1000 for uniform even before they start working. Long working hours with no additional perks and humiliations by employers come on the sidelines."

Perhaps this is the reason that the resentment against Agnipath scheme is not finding an echo in poll narrative at a pitch that was expected. The BJP workers negate any resentment or opposition to the initiative pointing at the huge turnout at the recruitment rallies for defence and paramilitary forces. They are also trying to convey to the people that the state government will give priority to recruitment to Agniveers who superannuate after four years of service.

The Congress workers point out that, "the situation is so grim that the youth has no option but to line up for even a four year stint as it would fetch him money and employment even though for a short while. The people clearly understand the difference between temporary and permanent vocation. Their silence does not mean that they have accepted what has been dished out to them."

The constituencies in lower Himachal Pradesh are known for their high contribution to the defence and paramilitary forces. As one moves across villages one can see memorials and statues erected of the jawans and officers who have made the supreme sacrifice in the line of duty that dot the rural landscape.

There are families that have been sending their wards to the forces for generations. Even among the youth in these villages a job in the defence forces is a dream.

Inflation is another factor that is high on the mind of the voters in this area. "Till a few days ago cauliflower was selling at Rs 120 per kg and even a kg is not enough for a family of four. Additional ingredients like potato, onion, garlic and ginger along with oil make it pretty expensive. Do our earnings match this high cost? There are many who are now preferring consuming more pulses than vegetables. What can a commoner do since these things are never on the agenda of the political leaders," rued a lady resident who was purchasing vegetables just outside the famous Jwalamukhi temple.

Kangra district with its 15 of the total 68 Assembly constituencies has played the deciding role in successive assembly polls in the state. It has the largest say in any government that is formed. The district has given a chief minister in Shanta Kumar to the state in the past on two occasions.

The adjoining Hamirpur district sends five legislators to the Assembly. It has also given a chief minister in Prem Kumar Dhumal on two occasions. Both these leaders were from the BJP. This time around it is Sukhu from Hamirpur district who is one of the probables for the post from the Congress.

The rookie Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) has failed to make much of an impact in these areas despite their close proximity to Punjab where the party swept to power in March this year. It was eyeing a spillover impact in Himachal but that has not happened. Yet the party has marked its presence and has the potential to come up as an alternative to the two traditional power houses in future.

The party's leader Ranjit Rishi told this reporter at Dehra, "An ailing person tries one doctor after the other to get his ailment treated. This is what the people are experiencing with the Congress and the BJP from whom they have failed to get solutions to their problems. They are now looking at AAP. Our focus is on governance and people understand that we mean business."

It can be gauged from the mood of the voter, who is otherwise silent, that the BJP is on the defensive on many issues. But the question remains whether the Congress can get this sentiment converted into votes. For the BJP he votes are being sought once again in the name of Prime Minister Narendra Modi and the double engine narrative.

The Congress workers are wary of an aggressive campaign and pinch hitting by the BJP's central leadership in the slog overs. They confess that their central leadership is not in a position to match the BJP's onslaught. They are keeping their campaign highly localised targeting regional issues while focusing on the reach out to the individual voters in remote villages.

Anti-incumbency, A Heavy Load To Carry

The political milieu prevailing in the state this time has never been the case before. If one studies the poll campaign of the two main contestants, Congress and the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), it seems that the Congress is pitted not against an individual and not a party. The BJP here is solely relying on and campaigning in the name of Prime Minister Narendra Modi. Also Read - Bharat Jodo Yatra Meets the Challenges The Citizen had reported this months ago, and it is now on display in the state as the BJP's campaigners are not even referring to any achievements by the party's incumbent government or its Chief Minister Jai Ram Thakur. It is only PM Modi's name being invoked. PM Modi's larger than life image, built with the help of a pliant media, is the sole motto of the aggressive campaigns being done by the BJP's foot soldiers. The BJP is facing a heavy anti-incumbency wave in this small hill state.

Meanwhile, the Congressmen are sticking to local issues of the old pension scheme, employment and inflation. This was experienced by this reporter while travelling to some of the remote interiors of the state. Meeting fellow travellers in local buses, interacting with a cross section of the people in various villages and towns, has relieved the mood of the voters. It was interesting to note a conversation between a private school teacher and a bus conductor, on the way from Nadaun to Hamirpur. The former was complaining about inflation and underemployment.

"It is difficult to make ends meet. My institution makes me sign a payment voucher for Rs 15,000 but actually pays me Rs 8,000. We are annoyed that the state government never addresses our concerns. They instituted committees and kept the things pending," he rued. The conductor, a foot soldier of the BJP, was quick to retort, "You people do not understand anything. Look at how Modi abrogated Article 370 in Kashmir. Our army men who faced stone pelting mobs daily can now move around without any such hindrance. Modi is going all out to remove corruption by making every procedure digital so that there are no financial irregularities. Above all you are being made available free ration and direct benefit transfers."

Unable to comprehend what has hit them and is making their lives miserable, the people are trying to navigate a maze. Another bus driver of a private bus told this reporter, while waiting for the road to be cleared of boulders on the stretch between Jahu and Ner Chowk, "I fail to comprehend why my contemporaries working with the Himachal Roadways Transport Corporation (HRTC) get Rs 70,000 as wages, while I have to make do with Rs 12,000 per month. On top of this is the fear of being laid off anytime. Modi is doing a good thing by privatising every sector. It will bring parity." However, he was critical of the political class in general, "they need to be paid daily wages only. They secure high emoluments for themselves along with other perks and even pensions. Even the present state government is no different," he said.

As one moved into Mandi district there was evidence of what has changed in Himachal Pradesh in the past five years. In 2017 the BJP swept to power winning 44 of the 68 seats. Mandi had emerged as the new power centre in the state where the saffron party had won nine of the 10 seats that were in the offing. The Congress had scored a zero, and the sole independent winner in Jogindernagar threw his weight behind the BJP and is now a party candidate. With the BJP's chief ministerial face Prem Kumar Dhumal biting the dust in Sujanpur constituency of Hamirpur, the BJP chose Jai Ram Thakur from Seraj constituency in Mandi as the new chief minister. With his soft spoken, youthful image and easy accessibility, Thakur was slated to emerge as a tall leader.

But being an affable person and an efficient political leader are two different things. He came to be known as someone who towed the centre's line and did not take strong state centric decisions on his own, something that his predecessors in the party Shanta Kumar and even Dhumal were known for.

This time around the mood in Mandi district is quite different and observers expect the BJP's tally to come down considerably. The people accuse the government under him of concentrating development in just a couple of constituencies including his own. There has been a lot of opposition to the project of building an international airport in Balh valley. There is a lot of dissatisfaction among the people on the compensation paid for their lands acquired for the four lane projects.

"Tall promises had been made last time about developing water sports facilities in the district, improving the infrastructure on the temple circuit and other local projects but nothing has come of it," said an observer. An interesting observation came from a barber Ranjit Kumar in Mandi town, "Jai Ram Thakur does not promote himself in his speeches. He is asking for votes in Modi's name, to 'strengthen the PM'. But we have even issues with Modi and his central government that has failed to generate jobs and curtain inflation.

"Take for example the entire 'Beti Bachao Beti Padhao' campaign. How do they expect people to purchase expensive stationery with a high goods and services tax (GST) tag? A thin notebook costs nothing less than Rs 50." His words were proved correct in the next couple of hours when in a media interaction Jai Ram Thakur said, "Himachal needs a double engine and for that people need to strengthen Modi. He has made it his home and has a sense of belonging to it along with the love for the people."

Thakur said that the BJP has a strong leadership at both local and national level and the latter was giving strength to the party in the state by devoting time for the campaign. He tore into the Congress campaign taking potshots at the multiple chief ministerial aspirants in the party while also saying, "They need to give many clarifications. They had promised a government job to every household in 2012. "They had also promised to give unemployment allowances. They had also promised to curtail inflation. Nothing was delivered. At present those whose own guarantee is questionable are giving guarantees to the voters" When asked by this reporter on his biggest achievement and also something which he wanted to achieve and could not, he diplomatically responded, "the Covid 19 outbreak was a big hindrance. It led to exhaustion of time and revenue. But we tried our best to introduce new initiatives and whatever we did was 'Garib ke kareeb' (close to the poor)."

On the issue of whether he would be made the Chief Minister once again if BJP manages to form the government he said, "After winning on the last occasion I was told to lead the government and work for the people. Now I have been given the task of leading the party to victory. The party leadership decides who will be the chief minister and there have been indications to that effect." The people in the district say that even if the BJP loses in the state, the district might retain its claim on the chief minister's chair if veteran Congress leader Kaul Singh, one of the front runners for the post, is chosen to lead the government. An eight time MLA, he is in the fray from Darang constituency. But such things remain far-fetched for now. Mandi (Sadar) constituency is witnessing an interesting battle between two dynasties.

The Congress has fielded Champa Thakur who is the daughter of Kaul Singh Thakur against Anil Sharma who is the son of former telecommunication minister Sukh Ram. The latter has been a case to watch as he has been fielded once again by the BJP despite him attacking the party on numerous occasions. Earlier he had done the same while being in the party. He has come to be known as the 'opposition in the ruling party'. Sharma's son Aashray had joined the Congress ahead of the 2019 polls to contest the Lok Sabha polls only to return to the saffron fold recently. Sharma had lost his cabinet berth and was sidelined all this while.

This party hopping has irked the people of the town and the BJP's narrative on the Congress being a proponent of dynastic politics has taken a hit. The contest has assumed significance with a former BJP spokesperson throwing his hat in the ring as an independent. Both the Congress and the BJP are facing the heat from the revels across the state. The rebels can be spoilers as constituencies being small witness close contests where margins are quite close.