As the Assembly polls get nearer the emerging political picture in the hill state of Himachal Pradesh is getting dominated by more shades of grey. The political matrix at this point of time is marked by 'probabilities' despite there being strong indicators on the ground.

The two main traditional contenders in Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and the Congress have many elements in common, and there are many factors that separate them. "What makes the scenario interesting is that while there is heavy anti-incumbency and anger against the present government, the same cannot be said about how people look at Prime Minister Narendra Modi," pointed an observer who has had a close eye on the political developments in the state for the last three decades.

"If one goes by the public sentiment the mood is definitely anti-establishment. The option therefore before the people is only the Congress. This has been visible right through the by-polls held last year to several other smaller elections. But the massive infighting in the grand old party is offering a window of possibility to the BJP to repeat the government in the state," political sources said.

The scenario is all the more complicated because of certain distinct characteristics of Himachal politics. To begin with the voters are high on literacy and clear in their head in terms of political awareness.

Most important aspect is that the demography does not offer any scope for communal or caste polarisation, despite the fact that Dalit population in the state in terms of percentage of the total is second only to Punjab. Hence, real issues ride high as compared to several other parts of the country and the poll narrative is totally different.

In the present scenario if one starts with the commonalities between the two main contenders, the first common factor is that of factionalism being rife in both the parties. And this is going to boil down to the ticket distribution. The second important common factor is that both the parties are going into the poll battle without a heavyweight leading them.

The Congress has decided to go ahead with a collective leadership to quell factionalism. There is no one of the stature of either Virbhadra Singh or Dr YS Parmar to lead the charge. The collective leadership are minions in comparison.

The BJP is going into the poll battle with the Chief Minister Jai Ram Thakur as its face. However, the fact remains that he too is a lightweight as compared to the likes of Shanta Kumar and Prem Kumar Dhumal who have served as BJP's CMs in the state.

The BJP is highly dependent on Prime Minister Narendra Modi's charisma to deliver the state to the saffron fold. The party is right now preparing for Modi's rally in Mandi on September 24 to launch its campaign.

At present a massive mobilisation is on across the districts to ensure a high attendance at the venue to make the rally a success. The BJP's national president Jagat Prakash Nadda who is supervising the preparations.

Mandi is the home district of Jai Ram Thakur and Modi has served the BJP's organisational structure in the state in the past. That Nadda also hails from Himachal adds to the prestige involved in the poll outcome.

It is expected that Modi will play up the 'double engine' narrative while reminding the people of his association with the state besides attacking the Congress on the lines that the BJP has been doing across the country. Senior national party leaders have started visiting the state, issuing statements that have more content of national politics in them.

In fact, Jai Ram Thakur chose Modi's birthday on September 17 to flag off BJP's LED Rath Yatra in the state to 'effectively take the policies, schemes and programs of the central and the state governments among the masses'. He said that through this campaign, the developmental programs and welfare schemes of the government will be publicised in all the assembly constituencies.

The Congress on the other hand is keeping its campaign at a localised level for now raising hyper local issues to target the Jai Ram Thakur government. It is refraining from raising the narratives dominating the national political scene at the movement or from launching a frontal attack on Modi. Observers feel that this strategy is going to continue.

Meanwhile, both the parties have their hands full when it comes to problems and challenges. There are issues on which they will have difficulties facing the public.

An issue that was waiting to blow up has now surfaced much to the chagrin of the BJP. An independent organisation by the name of Forum Against Corruption (FAC) has taken strong exception to the recruitment of more than 250 teachers in Himachal Pradesh University (HPU) for the posts of assistant professors, associate professors and professors.

It has demanded the constitution of a Commission of Inquiry headed by a sitting judge of the Himachal Pradesh High Court to thoroughly probe into the 'fraudulent manner of recruitment of these teachers'.

The FAC stated: "The scale of corruption and violation of the procedures in the recruitment is so large that it does not just pertain to the recruitment of a few teachers, rather is a hedgehog fraud that has been led by none other than those in power compounded with a lot of kickbacks in monetary terms. Hence a thorough Commission is required to probe into the illegalities that pertain not just to the HPU and its officials but also to those who have supplied experience certificates fraudulently."

The alleged irregularities since 2014 pertain to the recruitment of around 250 teachers done in contravention to the University Grants Commission (UGC) rules and provisions of law as laid out in the HPU Act.

Pointing towards certain revelations coming through a series of Right to Information (RTI) applications made over a long period, the statement has described the findings as "nothing less than a major scandal that shall rock not just the HPU administration but also the incumbent government.

"It is imperative for the people to know that the teachers teaching the highest institution of learning would actually be ruining the careers of thousands of students as neither have they the academic acumen to reach out to academic standards nor the morality of fairness in selection; which eventually will jeopardise the institution itself. This cannot be allowed to happen and hence must be thoroughly probed and the guilty must be brought to book."

The Congress has also jumped into the argument with its spokesperson Saurav Chauhan saying, "the University is a live example of people of a particular ideology being recruited through fraudulent means." The party has promised a probe into the recruitments made in various institutions of higher education in the state.

There has been no response on the allegations either from the University or from the government till now. The controversy has all the potential of snowballing into a major unrest given the fact that the neighbouring Uttarakhand has been witnessing a lot of discontent among the youth on the issue of employment.

On the other hand the unrest among the fruit growers continues to simmer. The fruit growers say that the high level committee formed by the government has failed to make any headway in addressing their grievances. What has added to their woes is the corporate entities having controlled atmosphere stores for apple storage reducing their procurement rates leaving the growers in a lurch.

"All this shows that the government is hand in glove with the corporate entities and against the interests of the horticulturists. It is not at all concerned about proper implementation of the Agricultural Produce Market Committee (APMC) Act. Now that the corporates have managed procurement at reduced rates we will ensure that they are not able to market this produce as and when they want to," said Sanjay Chauhan who is a senior leader of the Sanyukta Kisan Manch (SKM) an umbrella organisation of fruit growers in the state.

The government was recently left red faced on the appointment of the new chief of the Himachal Pradesh Public Service Commission (HPPSC) was in for a fresh round of embarrassment last week when squabbling between top bureaucrats was out in the open on the appointment of the chief secretary in July this year.

Seniormost IAS officer Nisha Singh reportedly questioned the appointment of RD Dhiman as the chief secretary in a letter to the Governor Rajendra Vishwanath Arlekar and Jai Ram Thakur. She questioned her being superseded while underling that the work done by her was ignored.

She also questioned that under present circumstances could the chief secretary, who is junior to her, give advice to the Chief Minister? She also reportedly stated that the present dispensation does not seem to be ready positively towards women officers and women in general.

All this comes apart from the anti-incumbency being faced by the BJP led government and the people being livid on issues of inflation and unemployment.

Congress' Woes

At the same time, the woes of the Congress are no less. A large number of the party leaders want the party high command to declare a chief ministerial face. They say that the concept of a 'collective leadership' is not working to their satisfaction at the ground level. They say that unless this is done the discontent among the masses may not translate into votes.

But at the same time many party insiders feel that the party high command is in no position to announce a chief ministerial face at this point of time. They feel it would only lead to more feud among the factions led by various aspirants.

A major dampener for the party came when one of the senior most leaders Ram Lal Thakur quit as the vice president of the state unit pointing at leaders pulling the party in different directions. However, he said that he would continue to work as the head of the election management committee.

An emotionally charged Thakur announced his decision saying he was not keen on contesting despite the fact that sitting MLAs have been asked to contest the forthcoming polls. He is a five time legislator from Naina Devi and a former minister.

Jai Ram Thakur reacted to his resignation from the post of vice president saying, "The Congress party is passing through the worst phase and its 'Quit Congress Campaign' is progressing steadily and rapidly. Thakur's resignation is the most recent example."

Observers feel that the Congress campaign at this point is lacking the aggression that should have been there. They say that the attacks on the BJP governments both at the centre and the state need to be more sharp and precise instead of a 'routine symbolic affair'.

It remains to be seen what narrative PM Modi sets in his rally on September 24 and how the Congress responds to it. Senior Congress leader Priyanka Gandhi too is expected in the state soon.