Ahmedabad/Shimla: The BJP is eyeing a record seventh straight term in Gujarat and also hoping to buck the anti-incumbency trend in Himachal Pradesh witnessed for nearly four decades as counting of votes progresses on Thursday for the Assembly elections in the two states.
As per early leads, the BJP is leading in 136 seats followed by Congress in 39 seats in Gujarat. The Aam Aadmi Party, which is aiming for a big entry in the state, is ahead in five seats.
In Himachal Pradesh which has 68 seats, both BJP and the Congress are neck and neck. BJP is leading in 39 seats and Congress in 27 seats.
Simultaneously, votes polled in by-elections in six assembly constituencies in five states and the high-profile Mainpuri Lok Sabha seat in Uttar Pradesh, where the opposition Samajwadi Party is locked in a battle for prestige with the BJP, will be also counted.
The counting process will commence at 8 am with postal ballots to be taken up first.
Exit polls have predicted a big majority for the Bharatiya Janata Party(BJP) in Gujarat and if these projections are any indication the saffron party is all set to retain power in the home state of Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Home Minister Amit Shah for the seventh consecutive term and equal Left Front's feat in West Bengal. The CPI(M)-led Front ruled the eastern state for 34 years from 1977 to 2011.
The BJP, which won 99 seats in the 2017 polls, is projected to win in the range of 117-151 seats in a House of 182 and the Congress between 16 and 51 seats. It is also upbeat about the possibility of the AAP eating into Congress votes, which could be additionally beneficial for the saffron party.
The best showing for the BJP in Gujarat came in 2002 when the party had won 127 seats in the 182-member state assembly.
The poll outcome will determine if the Aam Aadmi Party(AAP) gets a chance to establish itself as a pan-national party and a challenger to the BJP at the national level also.
The AAP, which is in power in Delhi and Punjab and had launched an aggressive campaign to make it a three-cornered contest for the first time in Gujarat, was projected to bag anything between 2 and 13 seats. The majority mark is 92.
For the Congress, its role as the main challenger to the BJP is at stake and Thursday's results will show if the party's ‘silent campaign' has cut ice with people. Top leaders of the party, which was projected to bag between 16 and 51 seats, were busy with Rahul Gandhi's Bharat Jodo Yatra. The Congress bagged 77 seats in 2017.
Congress holds power only in Rajasthan and Chhattisgarh, both of which will go to polls in 2023, and party insiders say that any hopes for the party's revival has to start from Himachal Pradesh. It is expecting the electorate to go by the nearly four-decade old tradition of voting out the incumbent government in the hill state.
As the BJP battled anti-incumbency sentiments after 27 years of rule in Gujarat, Prime Minister Modi was the party's trump card and the ruling party banked on 'Brand Modi' in a bid to contain the anti-incumbency factor.
Among the key issues in Gujarat campaign were unemployment, price rise, water not reaching certain pockets of the state, land acquisition for big projects and farmers not getting proper compensation for crop damage due to excess rains.
While Modi led the BJP poll campaign holding several rallies and mega road shows in Gujarat, Home Minister Shah was in the state for almost two months, micromanaging the campaign and the election strategy.
Party president J P Nadda, chief ministers of BJP-ruled states including Yogi Adityanath, Shivraj Singh Chouhan, Himanta Biswa Sarma and Pramod Sawant also addressed election rallies in the state. Almost all the Union ministers of the BJP took part in the campaign.
Congress leader Rahul Gandhi took time off his Bharat Jodo Yatra to address two rallies in Gujarat where Rajasthan Chief Minister Ashok Gehlot led the party's campaign. The new party chief Mallikarjun Kharge also addressed poll rallies.
Delhi Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal steered an aggressive campaign for the AAP, holding several rallies and road shows in the last five months.
In Himachal Pradesh, it could be the Congress' turn to form the next government if one went by the state's "riwaaj(tradition) and long history of voting out the incumbent government.
But with all but two exit polls predicting an edge for the ruling BJP it remains to be seen which way the voters have decided in the closely fought elections.
The hill state has not returned any incumbent government to power after 1985, a trend the ruling BJP, powered by Prime Minister Modi's personalised campaign, hopes to break.
The BJP slogan this time was "Raj nahin, riwaaj badlega", meaning the convention will change, not the government.
The BJP has bucked the anti-incumbency trend in the last Assembly polls in Uttar Pradesh, Goa, Assam, and Uttarakhand by repeating its state governments there, and is hoping to repeat its government in Himachal Pradesh, which is also the home state of Nadda. It is hoping for an encore on the back of its development agenda.
In the 2017 assembly elections in Himachal Pradesh with a house strength of 68, the BJP had won 44 seats and the Congress 21, with one seat going to the CPI-M, and two to independent candidates.
The Congress has been confident of its victory, saying the voters will decide on the fundamental issues of price rise, joblessness, the old pension scheme, and other challenges of life and livelihood the state residents have been facing.
With a muted campaign by the AAP and its former state in-charge Satyendar Jain lodged in Tihar jail, the Congress is upbeat that its vote share will only improve, while the BJP hopes to gain from a higher women vote percentage than men.
A higher women turnout has of late favoured the BJP, as seen in UP and Uttarakhand, with the party hoping that similar trends will hold in HP.
Both the BJP and Congress camps are learnt to have been in touch with independent candidates who might play a key role in the event of a close contest, predicted in several exit polls, with a slender edge to the BJP.