Battle lines have been drawn for Sunday's poll for the 68-member Himachal Pradesh assembly where political heavyweights Prem Kumar Dhumal and Virbhadra Singh are jostling for the attention of voters, for whom the issue of price rise and corruption seems to have surpassed the anti-incumbency factor.
The Bharatiya Janata Party and Congress are contesting all 68 seats while the Bahujan Samaj Party has fielded 66 candidates followed by Himachal Lokhit Party (36), Trinamool Congress (25), Samajwadi Party (16), Communist Party of India - Marxist (15), Nationalist Congress Party and Swabhiman Party (12 each), Communist Party of India (7), Shiv Sena (4) and 105 Independents.
Led by Chief Minister Prem Kumar Dhumal, the incumbent BJP is hoping to script history in Himachal by going the Punjab way, where the Akali-BJP combine returned to power against historical projections.
Much like Punjab, Himachal has never repeated a government since 1977. Whether the November 4 elections mark a departure from the norm or whether they see the Congress repeating their feat in Uttarakhand, remains to be seen.
In all, 459 candidates are in the fray for Sunday's elections, 27 of them women. As many as 7,253 polling stations have been set up -- the highest polling station is in Hikkim in Lahaul and Spiti at a height of over 15,000 feet.
Counting will take place on December 20.
In the 2007 poll, BJP had won 41 as against Congress' 23, while the independents and BSP won three and one seat respectively.
Corruption in both the BJP and Congress camps is a major election issue in the state, with the latter facing graver charges in the wake of scams on coal block allocation, 2G spectrum and Commonwealth Games by Congress-led United Progressive Alliance at the Centre.
Though corruption charges have flown thick and fast throughout the period of campaigning, the Congress has somehow managed to neutralise their effect by launching a counter-offensive against Dhumal and his Cabinet colleagues.
Virbhadra Singh has openly accused the chief minister of giving away chunks of prime land to private players at throwaway prices.
The much-hyped BJP offensive against Virbhadra Singh on corruption in the wake of a series of graft allegations against him got diluted after the Congress launched a counter-offensive against the party in the wake of allegations of "dubious" funding by companies of its president Nitin Gadkari.
In fact, by the end of canvassing on Friday, corruption had taken a backseat with price rise emerging as the strongest issue. The BJP leadership has used LPG cap and diesel cost hike issues to push the Congress against the wall by telling the voters how their household budgets would go for a toss because of the hike.
In Himachal, where rail network is negligible, diesel is the lifeline of the economy and at home, LPG remains a must-have in the absence of alternative fuels.
Dhumal tried to woo 22.31 lakh women voters by projecting free induction hotplates as his answer to Congress' LPG cap. The local Congress leaders too were pushed to get the Centre to stall another LPG price hike at the last moment.
"Price rise is affecting us badly and the LPG cap is going to disturb our household budgets. It is a major factor this time," says Satya Sharma in Amboya village in Sirmour
district. Neelam Kumari of Bannaur village on the border with Uttarakhand in the same district airs similar views.
Though national and local issues will impact election results in their own way, the emergence of BJP rebels under the umbrella of Himachal Lokhit Party has made the fight interesting.
In 12 segments out of 68, rebels will make a huge difference. That is a critical factor considering in the 2007 elections, the victory margin in 22 seats was less than 2,500 votes and in another 40 segments it was less than 5,000 votes.
In such a scenario, the power of Dhumal and Virbhadra to swing votes at the last moment will matter. The ground situation indicates that while the BJP may perform better in smaller districts like Hamirpur, Una, Kullu, Chamba, Solan and Nahan, the Congress will retain its hold in Shimla and Kangra districts. In Kangra, BJP rebels will mar the party's chances.
As far as voters' constitution goes, a significant 50.01 per cent is upper caste vote in Himachal, followed by 25.59 per cent Scheduled Caste, 17.08 per cent Other Backward Classes, 4.32 per cent Scheduled Tribe and 3 per cent minority votes. Traditionally, SCs go with the Congress.
The presence of HLP, BSP, NCP and TMC contestants will also determine results and so will independents -- who had bagged 8 per cent of the vote share in 2007 elections -- when the BJP took 43.78 per cent and the Congress 38.90 per cent.
The BSP had in the last elections managed a meagre 7.26 per cent vote share followed by CPM's 0.57 per cent and CPI's 0.19 per cent. The Left parties, which are part of HLP this time, are hoping to improve their tally.
Sunday's elections will decide the fate of several key players. For two-time CM Dhumal, a repeat victory would mean a stronger position within the BJP ahead of the 2014 Lok Sabha polls and the party taking itself forward strongly in the next elections.
For Virbhadra, who is fighting his last election, winning is a matter of prestige considering the Congress hasn't projected him as the CM candidate. Maheshwar Singh, the former BJP Himachal chief and head of HLP, is also keen to make a point by toppling the BJP applecart in and around Kullu, his home district.
"In the absence of a definite wave in favour of any party, HLP may well hold the key to the next government," says Gagan Kumar in Kullu. But Khyali Ram in Hamirpur feels there has to be a CM from the lower hills this time, as that would ensure all-round development of the neglected areas.
In Shimla's outskirts, Neetu Sharma of Tutu speaks strongly in favour of Virbhadra and his party.
Sunil Kumar, a young bank employee in Dharamshala, also supports Congress, saying, "There has to be a change of government, as Himachal has done in the past."
Also on watch will be 84-year-old Vidya Stokes of the Congress, the oldest candidate in the run, who is fighting her Marxist nephew in Theog.
Sunday's poll will also see 96-year-old Shyam Saran Negi of Kalpa village in Kinnaur district of Himachal Pradesh cast his vote. He is considered as the first and oldest voter in the country as per the EC's records.