A week to go for campaigning to wrap up in the Himachal Pradesh Assembly elections, the following are emerging as the 10 key contests:
Sitting MLA: Jai Ram Thakur, BJP (Chief Minister)
The Seraj Assembly constituency was earlier known as Chachiot, with the name changed following delimitation in 2007. The seat has been a BJP stronghold and Thakur has been winning it since 1998. In the 2017 elections, Jai Ram beat the Congress’s Chet Ram Thakur by 11,254 votes. The Congress has again fielded Chet Ram.
Roads are a major issue in the seat, as several remote areas are yet to be connected to main highways, while others are half-constructed, making vehicular movement difficult. More schools and development are other demands, with locals anguished about the condition of infrastructure despite this being the CM’s seat.
The Congress is facing discontent in its ranks, with local leaders such as Vijay Pal Singh having considered fighting as an Independent after being denied a ticket. The party, however, managed to placate Singh.
Sitting MLA: Anirudh Singh, Congress
The BJP has brought in its Urban Development Minister Suresh Bharadwaj, a four-time winner from neighbouring Shimla Urban, to contest this seat. There is rebellion in the ranks over the selection, and the Bharadwaj camp itself admits being taken by surprise over the change. The party, however, claims the final call on the ticket was taken by the high command following surveys and feedback.
The Congress has re-fielded Anirudh Singh, who is looking for a hat-trick win. Singh, who claims royal origins and belongs to the area, won the previous two elections from Kasumpti with handsome margins.
Kasumpti has a large population of apple growers and government employees. Bharadwaj also goes in against the backdrop of protests by apple farmers and demand for horticulture reforms, and agitation by government workers for a return to the Old Pension Scheme. He is also seen as an “outsider”.
Sitting MLA: Rajiv Saizal, BJP
A three-time MLA from Kasauli, Saizal, 51, is the Minister for Family Welfare, Health and Ayurveda. Fielded by the BJP again from the seat, he is facing the Congress’s Vinod Sultanpuri, whom he defeated the last two times.
Before Saizal’s hat-trick streak, the seat had been a Congress bastion, with Raghu Raj winning five times till 2003.
While Saizal has built his popularity by building gyms from his MLA funds, Kasuali’s main hope is an ambitious ropeway project which will connect the district to Jabli, with a capacity of transporting more than 1,000 people per hour. With Kasauli a tourism destination, the project is seen as giving a boost to the industry.
Sitting MLA: Mukesh Agnihotri, Congress
Leader of the Opposition Mukesh Agnihotri, who has won from the constituency since 2003, is seen as one of the CM faces of the Congress. He is facing BJP state spokesperson Ram Kumar. A former journalist, Agnihotri is believed to have been mentored and brought into politics by Congress strongman Virbhadra Singh.
The BJP has fielded Ram Kumar despite him having lost previous elections from the seat. The party is counting on a turnaround on the back of the bulk drug park project coming up in Haroli. A marquee project of the Central government, it promises to bring to the area robust medical infrastructure and employment opportunities. The Rs 2,000 crore project will attract investments worth Rs 50,000 crore, the BJP claims.
Sitting MLA: Bikram Singh, BJP
Bikram Singh was made the Industries Minister, after defeating the Congress’s Surinder Singh Mankotia by a narrow margin of 1,862 votes, and has been fielded by the BJP again.
The constituency was earlier an SC reserved seat and was represented by Congress MLA Yog Raj. In the 2012 elections, its name was changed from Pragpur to Jaswan-Pragpur, and it was opened to the general category, changing the caste equations in Dharamshala and Kangra regions. Bikram Singh won the elections that followed – both 2012 and 2017.
Recently, Singh found himself in a controversy after a video allegedly showing the leader attending an online satsang of rape and murder convict Dera Sacha Sauda head Gurmeet Ram Rahim Singh surfaced.
Railway line, roads and other forms of connectivity to other regions is a key issue for locals in the area.
Sitting MLA: Sukh Ram Chaudhary, BJP
Power Minister Sukh Ram Chaudhary won this seat last and has been re-fielded by the BJP. The Congress has given the ticket to Kirnesh Jung, who lost to Chaudhary in 2017 but had won Paonta Sahib as an Independent in 2012.
Sukh Ram is a past winner from the seat, having bagged the seat in 2003 and 2007, and enjoys the backing of the Bhatis, who are considered Rajputs.
In the region, issues of power supply and illegal mining will be key. The BJP is banking on provision of free 125 units of electricity supply, particularly given that Paonta Sahib is the seat of the Power Minister.
Sitting MLA: Rakesh Singha, CPI(M)
This seat under Shimla district is the only one held by the Left, which continues to have a presence in Himachal. While the CPI(M) candidate is again Singha, the Congress has fielded former PCC president Kuldeep Rathore, who is contesting his first election.
Following delimitation, areas such as Kumarsain and Kotgarh came under Theog, making it one of the most important apple regions of the state.
In 2017, the veteran Theog MLA Vidya Stokes left the seat to Virbhadra Singh to assign, and the Congress ticket went to a young leader. A split in votes is believed to have helped Singha emerge the winner. In the coming elections, the CPI(M) leader is relying on his work and apple farmers’ resentment to seal a repeat win.
Rathore, who has a close association with the Gandhis, is seen as more of an organisation man and is believed to have got the seat against much resistance. This has left out in the cold Indu Verma, who had recently joined the Congress in the hope of getting a ticket, and is now contesting as an Independent. Rathore is also facing Vijay Khachi, the son of former leader J B L Khachi, as an Independent.
The BJP has fielded Ajay Shyam. Its candidate was second-placed last time.
Sitting MLA: Sarveen Chaudhary, BJP
The Social Justice and Empowerment Minister, Chaudhary has been re-fielded by the BJP from Kangra’s Shahpur. The Congress has given the ticket to Kewal Singh Pathania, who came in third in 2017.
This time though, Kewal Singh is expected to make gains with the entry of senior leader and former Congress minister Major Vijai Singh Mankotia (retd) into the BJP. Mankotia, who had fought elections in 2012 and 2017 from Shahpur as an Independent but lost to Chaudhary, was very vocal against the minister during his tenure in the Congress and locals in the region are believed to be upset about his decision to join the BJP. Some of that vote is expected to go to Kewal Singh in protest.
Roads and medical facilities are the most important poll issues in this seat.
Sitting MLA: Sukhvinder Singh Sukhu, Congress
The Congress election campaign in-charge and its former state chief, he is one of the CM contenders of the party. Sukhu has been re-fielded by the party from Nadaun, which he also won in 2003 and 2007. The BJP has given the ticket to Vijay Agnihotri, who beat Sukhu in 2012 but lost to him in 2017.
For Sukhu, a successful Congress campaign across the state is crucial for his elevation to CM. For the BJP too, Nadaun matters as it falls in Hamirpur, the home district of former BJP CM Prem Kumar Dhumal and Dhumal’s son and Union minister Anurag Thakur. The BJP has chosen Home Minister Amit Shah to rally for the party candidate given the high stakes.
Hamirpur sends a large number of recruits to the Army and also has a sizeable population of government employees. Both the Old Pension Scheme and the contested Agniveer defence recruitment scheme will be factors in voting.
Sitting MLA: Vikramaditya Singh, Congress
Son of late six-time Congress CM Virbhadra Singh, Vikramaditya is looking to win for the second time from Shimla Rural. The seat was formed following delimitation in 2007. In 2012, Virbhadra had won by a margin of more than 20,000 votes. The BJP has fielded Ravi Mehta, thus maintaining the trend of picking a different candidate each time.
Given Virbhadra’s legacy, Vikramaditya has a strong Congress support base in the region and is being projected as a key youth leader.
The region was carved out of Shimla and development remains the key issue, particularly housing and roads, as well as job opportunities.