Shimla: The parliamentary elections in Himachal Pradesh will be a test for the Congress government - which is just less than two years in power in the hill state - as the opposition BJP rides a `Modi` wave.
Like previous polls, this time too two arch rivals - the Congress and the BJP - are locked in a tough contest. The Bahujan Samaj Party and the Communist Party of India-Marxist (CPI-M) have also fielded candidates, but they have apparently not been able to make their presence felt in the state politics so far.
New entrant Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) is unlikely to make the contest three-cornered in the state.
As per the trend emerging in two decades, the electorate in the Lok Sabha polls has been traditionally favouring the party at the helm in the state.
The Congress is having only a thin majority with 36 seats in a 68-member House, though it has roped in four Independents. The Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) is not far behind with 26 seats.
A total of 38 candidates are in the fray for the four Lok Sabha seats.
A total of 4,810,071 voters, including 2,335,641 women, will cast their votes May 7.
In 2009, the BJP, which was in power in the state, won three of the four Lok Sabha seats.
All eyes are now on two `prestige` seats -- Mandi and Hamirpur -- that are witnessing a battle of supremacy between archrivals Virbhadra Singh and Prem Kumar Dhumal. In the parliamentary elections, development and corruption have been pushed to the background as personal attacks dominate.
The former is the Congress veteran whose wife Pratibha Singh is again in the fray in Mandi, while the latter belongs to the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and his son Anurag Thakur is re-contesting in Hamirpur, a BJP bastion.
Both are two-time MPs, but Thakur, who is also president of the Himachal Pradesh Cricket Association (HPCA), is trying to hit a `hat-trick`.
In the elections, Dhumal has to re-establish his credentials not only by ensuring the victory of his son but also of other candidates as the party at his helm faced a humiliating defeat in the 2012 assembly elections . After losing power, he was almost marginalised in the state politics.
Interestingly, Virbhadra Singh, always a star campaigner, has travelled across the state but Dhumal has so far concentrated his campaign mainly on Hamirpur as his son drew flak for his high-profile lifestyle.
To challenge Thakur, 39, who was recognised as the Young Global Leader 2014 by the World Economic Forum, the Congress has fielded his father`s protege Rajinder Rana, 48.
The chief minister is said to have asserted that Rana was the best choice, as besides his popularity, he knows the Dhumal family inside out, which would help the Congress give a befitting reply to the BJP.
BJP candidate Ram Swaroop Sharma, 56, from Mandi is busy decrying his Congress rival and two-time MP Pratibha Singh, 57, wife of Chief Minister Virbhadra Singh, for her royal bloodline.
"Yeh Raja aur Rani hai, aur main ek aam aadmi hu (They are the royal couple and I am a common man)," Sharma, who is in the electoral fray for the first time, tells voters.
From Kangra, the largest Lok Sabha constituency in Himachal Pradesh in terms of voters, the Congress has pitted one-time MP Chander Kumar, 69, against BJP`s three-time MP Shanta Kumar, 79, who had announced his retirement from politics two year ago.
BJP`s outgoing MP, Rajan Sushant, 58, has joined the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) after a prolonged tussle with the state party and was fielded for this seat.
The Congress is in troubled waters in the Shimla (reserved) seat. For the first time in 2009, the BJP managed to win this seat, which was considered a Congress bastion.
Rohru first-time legislator Mohan Lal Bragta, 48, is the chief minister`s choice in Shimla. He has been locked in a close contest with BJP`s sitting MP Virender Kashyap, 63, who was booked in March on a corruption charge.
Political observers say issues like development and price rise have been pushed to the background as personal attacks dominate most of the election rallies of both the BJP and the Congress.
"Apart from mudslinging, there is no public-specific agenda with both the leaders. They are just trying to woo voters by raking up personal issues," an observer said.
Virbhadra Singh is targeting Dhumal by saying he has always worked with a political vendetta against him, while Dhumal is crying hoarse about political attacks being unleashed by the Congress against him and his family.