By Pramod Kumar
Himachal Pradesh has set the stage for a straight fight between the BJP and the Congress. The disintegration of the Himachal Vikas Congress (HVC), the merger of the Him Lok Tantrik Morcha (HLTM) with the BJP and decimation of the Left Front parties have virtually eliminated the third factor from the scene. The state will go to polls on May 10.
The realignment of political forces has reverted the state back to the two-party system with leaders of the other parties scrambling to join either the ruling Congress or the opposition, BJP. Over the past one month, most leading HVC leaders have deserted the party. Similarly, five independents have become associate members of the Congress Legislature Party and the sixth has decided to support the BJP.
A third force emerged on the political horizon during the 1998 assembly polls when the HVC won five of the 68 seats, polling 9.63 per cent votes. Sukh Ram, the party chief, played the king-maker in the wake of a hung assembly. The party spread its roots quickly and managed to win the Shimla Lok Sabha seat in alliance with the BJP in 1999. The two parties together polled 59 per cent votes?the highest ever for non-Congress parties.
Not only that, both the Congress and the BJP are welcoming the estranged partymen, who contested as rebels during the assembly elections, with open arms. The BJP has taken back almost all leaders who were expelled or had resigned from the party in Mandi, Kullu, Kangra and Chamba districts. The Congress has also readmitted most of the estranged leaders, despite opposition from some sections of the party. The Congress had lost all the four seats in the 1999 elections.
Kangra and Hamirpur have been the traditional strongholds of the BJP while the Congress has been the dominant force in Shimla and Mandi. The BJP, this time, is contesting all the four seats?Hamirpur (Suresh Chandel), Mandi (Maheshwar Singh), Kangra (Shanta Kumar) and Shimla (H.N. Kashyap). On the other hand, the Congress in the state is a divided house. Virbhadra Singh, Chief Minister of Himachal Pradesh and PCC chief Vidya Stokes are fighting for their political survival. Both leaders are levelling charges against each other in connection with the reconstitution of the PCC.