SHIMLA: Politics in the cool environs of Himachal Pradesh is set to heat up with the Election Commission on Thursday sounding the poll bugle.
Political observers say the ruling Congress this time has managed an edge over its seemingly somnolent rival Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) by clearing its chief ministerial candidate.
Congress Vice President Rahul Gandhi has named six-time Chief Minister Virbhadra Singh, 83, to lead the party in the election campaigning and if the party returns to power he will be the chief ministerial candidate.
The BJP is still dithering over its Chief Minister candidate. The main contenders are Leader of Opposition and two-time Chief Minister Prem Kumar Dhumal and Union Health Minister J.P. Nadda, who is known in political circles for his proximity to party's organizational leadership.
The Election Commission announced that the state would vote for a new assembly on November 9 and the counting would be held on December 18. The term of the 68-member assembly ends on January 7 next year.
The Congress is far ahead of its arch rival as far as campaigning at the grassroots level is concerned.
While Chief Minister Virbhadra Singh has already carried out a whirlwind tour of the state ahead the announcement of polls, the BJP is banking on its central top leadership, including Prime Minister Narendra Modi and party President Amit Shah.
The only saving grace for the BJP is that its state election committee did the preliminary exercise of screening candidates for the 68 assembly constituencies at a meeting on Wednesday where Dhumal and Nadda were present, among others.
The party evolved consensus on a single name on 45 segments, a senior BJP leader told IANS.
In the 2012 elections to the 68-member assembly, which saw a voter turnout of 73.92 per cent, the Congress won 36 seats, the BJP 26 and Independents six.
Chief Minister Virbhadra Singh has already announced that he would not re-contest from the Shimla (Rural) assembly seat that he is currently representing.
He has announced that his son Vikramaditya Singh would contest his maiden assembly election from that seat.
Congress veteran and eight-time legislator Vidya Stokes, 89, who is the Irrigation and Public Health Minister in the present government, is planning not to re-contest owing to old age. She's keen that Virbhadra Singh should contest this time from her bastion, Theog in Shimla district.
The Chief Minister is still weighing his options to contest from Theog or from some other seat.
"The Chief Minister can contest anywhere - from Shimla, Una or Kangra districts. This is his personal decision," Vikramaditya said while confirming that he is contesting from the seat that his father currently represents.
Within the BJP there is too much confusion over who will lead the party in the elections, a senior state BJP leader, who did not wish to be identified, admitted.
He said the party is divided in two camps -- one led by Dhumal and the other by Nadda.
"The party cadre and the leaders are totally confused over who the party leader is. Who will take the party to victory," wondered a senior BJP leader, a cabinet minister in the previous Dhumal-led government.
Ending months of speculation and turmoil within the Congress, Rahul Gandhi announced at a public meeting in Mandi town on October 7 that Virbhadra Singh will "become the Chief Minister for the seventh time".
"Certainly, it has given a push to the Congress ahead of the assembly polls. There has been a massive public response after Rahul Gandhi announced my chief ministerial candidature," an elated Virbhadra Singh told reporters in Shimla after the announcement by Gandhi.
"The BJP should also declare its chief ministerial candidate. Let the people know who is going to be their leader. They will vote on the basis of CM (Chief Minister) face," Virbhadra Singh said.
Congress leader and former Union Minister Anand Sharma, who is known in political circles as a "rival" of Virbhadra Singh, said: "It's the policy of the party to give a chance to the sitting incumbent Chief Minister to lead the party in the next election."
He was here on Thursday and replying to a media query over announcing the chief ministerial candidate before the election results.