Issue of development is the buzz word being used by leaders across party lines in Mandi, the country's second largest Parliamentary constituency, where BJP is seeking to dislodge Congress from its stronghold in a battle which they say is between "Raja and Rank". Sitting Congress MP Pratibha Singh, a member of the royal family of erstwhile Keonthal state, is up against BJP's Ram Swaroop Sharma, ex-Vice Chairman of the State Food and Civil Supplies Corporation.
Sharma, who is in the electoral fray for the first time, alleges that under the many years of Congress rule, the hill state has not been developed. The charge is flatly denied by Singh, wife of state Chief Minister Virbhadra Singh, scion of the erstwhile Bushahar princely state. "In the last 40 years, raja-maharajas (kings) ruled the state, but no development has taken place. The state is surviving on the infrastructure which was developed by the British," Sharma told PTI.
Congress failed to lay the rail network in the state, especially in the border areas, failed to restart the Gumma salt mine, which has been closed for many years and no expansion of fruit-based industry, he added. Countering the allegations, Singh said, "People of the area have not forgotten the development work done by the Congress government." Alleging the BJP of campaigning on a negative note, she said the Congress was instead "seeking vote on the development plank".
Undeterred by the challenge, Singh said, "Comparatively, I am in a very, very comfortable position and will sail through very easily and would win by a 'higher' margin than last time. She had retained the seat in 2013 by-poll, after her husband vacated the seat to take on the reins of the state government in December 2012. However, Sharma said lack of development in the area during Congress regime will hurt the ruling party.
Taking a leaf out of Modi's campaign which projects the BJP Prime Ministerial candidate as a 'chaiwala', Sharma said, "This time it's a battle of Raja and Rank (king and poor man)." With over 11 lakh electorate, the Mandi Lok Sabha seat has been a traditional bastion of Congress, except in 1977 when the party lost it for the first time. In the first general election held in 1951, the Mandi seat was won by Rajkumari Amrit Kaur on the Congress ticket and the party retained it till 1971.
In 1989 and 1998 elections, BJP captured the Mandi seat. Another Congress veteran and former telecom minister Sukh Ram was parliamentarian from this seat in 1984, 1991 and 1996.
Other candidates in the fray this time include, Jai Chand Thakur of AAP and Kushal Bhardwaj of CPI(M). Asked if the entry of AAP and focus on corruption would be a major issue during the elections, Singh said, "Opposition parties have no base in this constituency and they have no issues also to fight. There is no corruption issue and hence AAP becomes irrelevant here."
All four Lok Sabha seats in Himachal Pradesh, including Mandi, will go to the polls May 7.