Shimla, May 10 (IANS) He is 74 and is contesting parliamentary polls after three decades. Veteran Congress leader and five-time former chief minister of Himachal Pradesh Virbhadra Singh, popularly known as Raja Saab because of his royal antecedents, has a lot at stake.
Virbhadra Singh, who belongs to the erstwhile royal family of Bushehr, is fighting from the Mandi constituency that will see polling on May 13. His main rival is Maheshwar Singh of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP).
'I have travelled to every nook and corner of the state, both as a chief minister and a Lok Sabha member. People know me personally, have seen my work, they will vote in my favour,' Virbhadra Singh told IANS.
Starting his election campaign in mid-March, he has toured almost the entire constituency that covers virutally two-thirds of the hill state. Of the 1.1 million voters, 145,000 live in tribal areas.
'I have addressed over 500 election rallies. Even the tribal areas of Lahaul and Spiti, Kinnaur and Chamba have been covered. Now I am planning to concentrate on other constituencies in the state,' he said.
He is hoping to make a comeback from the margins after his Congress party lost the assembly polls 15 months ago and he was denied the post of legislative party leader in the state.
Virbhadra Singh had won the Mandi seat twice (in 1971 and 1980) and lost once (1977). His wife, Pratibha Singh, is the sitting MP.
When asked about the issues dominating these elections, he said: 'I think local issues will take precedence over national ones. People are fed up with the rampant nepotism and corruption of the state's BJP government.
'My fight is not against Maheshwar Singh, but against Chief Minister Prem Kumar Dhumal and his style of functioning.'
He has accused Dhumal of promoting his family members.
'It's only Dhumal, his MP son Anurag Thakur and Anurag's father-in-law Gulab Singh Thakur (a minister), who are calling the shots in the government,' he said.
Political observers see it as a 'do or die' battle for him.
'He is fighting a battle on two fronts. One, he is making a strong bid to win with a big margin. Second, he wants to silence detractors within his party,' said Vepa Rao, formerly of the Himachal Pradesh University.
Maheshwar Singh believes he has an edge. He says the entry of Communist Party of India-Marxist (CPI-M) candidate Onkar Shad and the open rift between Virbhadra Singh and former union minister Sukh Ram will favour the BJP.
'Shad will definitely dent the Congress margin. All these years, Left-leaning voters had been voting for the Congress,' he said.
He also pointed out that 'Sukh Ram, who was always sidelined by Virbhadra Singh in state politics, has so far kept away from campaigning for his bete noire (Virbhadra Singh)'.
Sukh Ram, 82, belongs to Mandi town and commands influence in the constituency.
Maheshwar Singh also said Virbhadra Singh would have to pay for his MP wife Pratibha Singh's follies. She had defeated Maheshwar Singh by 66,566 votes in the 2004 elections.
He said: 'Last time when Pratibha Singh fought the election, the husband-wife duo promised all-round development of the constituency, but they failed. Sensing trouble, she has suddenly opted out and pushed Virbhadra into the fray. But voters cannot be fooled every time.'
Maheshwar Singh is also banking on the results of the 2007 state elections in which the BJP got a majority and did particularly well in the tribal-dominated areas that fall in the Mandi constituency.
Read More: Kinnaur