Congress's trial by fire in Himachal begins with Bhoranj by-poll
For the Virbhadra Singh-led Congress in Himachal Pradesh, the trial by fire begins on Sunday, 9 April.
The party faces a by-poll for the Bhoranj Assembly seat on that day, which will be followed by the all-important Shimla Municipal Corporation elections in June.
These two polls will set the tone for the state Assembly elections, scheduled to be held at the end of the year.
Although inconsequential in terms of the party strengths in the current Assembly, the Bhoranj by-poll has become a high-pitched affair. The seat had fallen vacant with the death of Ishwar Dass Dhiman in November last year. A former state education minister, Dhiman was a BJP heavyweight in the state, who had been a member of the state Assembly since 1990.
While the BJP has chosen to field Dhiman's son Dr Anil Dhiman to cash in on the former's legacy, the Congress has fielded a woman candidate, Pramila Devi. It had initially chosen Prem Kaushal, a Virbhadra loyalist, but flip-flopped within 24 hours.
This hasty change of decision sent a message – that the party is faction-ridden, and leaders with conflicting interests had their way to the extent of getting the candidate changed after he had been finalised by the All Indian Congress Committee.
On a seat that's already a BJP citadel thanks to Dhiman, the late six-time MLA, it has given the saffron party further ammunition to attack the Congress.
Pramila herself is no lightweight. A member of the State Commission for Women, she has been a two-time zila parishad member from Samirpur ward, which is the home turf of former BJP CM Prem Kumar Dhumal. However, she had not contested the zila parishad elections last time.
The top leaders of both the national parties are working overtime for this electoral battle, the results to which will be declared on 13 April. The BJP is trying to capitalise on its victories in the neighbouring Uttarakhand and Uttar Pradesh in the recent Assembly polls, while the Congress is trying to capitalise on the party victory in the southwestern neighbour Punjab.
While the Congress battles anti-incumbency and charges of misgovernance from the BJP, it is trying to sell the developmental work it has done during the last five years.
This constituency falls in Hamirpur district, which reportedly has won accolades for its high literacy of 84.86% and improving its child sex ratio to 944. In this reserved constituency, women voters outnumber men by approximately 38,000 to 37,000.
Observers say the Congress government even wound up the recent budget session of the state Assembly early, amid protests from the Opposition BJP, so that its leaders could concentrate on this by-poll and the political campaigning to follow.
Congress leaders, including CM Virbhadra, also allege that the BJP government at the Centre got the Enforcement Directorate to act against him to destabilise his government and malign him ahead of the by-poll and the electoral battles to come.
The municipal battle
After this by-poll, the second major challenge for Virbhadra will be the Shimla Municipal Corporation polls. While the Congress has always dominated the show in the capital's corporation, the BJP has been desperately trying to capture the civic body. A win here for either would help in sending across a state-wide message just ahead of the Assembly polls.
This time around, the mayor and the deputy mayor will be elected by the chosen councilors. With a view to at least capture these posts, the former BJP government under Dhumal had amended the law to get these functionaries elected directly by the people. Much to its chagrin, though, CPI(M) candidates won these two offices in the 2012 polls.
After coming to power, the Congress government under Virbhadra reverted to the old practice of indirect elections.
The Congress will try its best to retain its stronghold on this civic body, which is amongst the oldest and most prestigious ones in the country.
Effect on Assembly polls
The outcome of these two polls will set the ball rolling for the mother of all battles in the form of the state Assembly polls, which the Congress is all set to once again fight under the leadership of Virbhadra.
Over the last few decades, the Congress and the BJP have been in power alternately, and the grand old party is trying to break this cycle.
The Congress is carrying the burden of anti-incumbency, which it is desperately trying to offload.
A key decision in this direction was the government's recent move to declare Dharamsala as the second capital of the state. Observers say the political leadership is already on an inauguration and foundation stone-laying spree. The BJP, on the other hand, has also got down to putting its act together.
The Congress will have to make a herculean effort if it wants to come back to power for the second consecutive time. Virbhadra and his team will have to learn from Captain Amarinder Singh on how to take on political adversaries at a time when the BJP's fortunes are looking up.
Besides, the Aam Aadmi Party, too, is expected to test waters in the hill state this time around.