SHIMLA: It is a battle of prestige for Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) star campaigner and Chief Minister Jai Ram Thakur to retain the Mandi parliamentary seat in Himachal Pradesh.
Thakur's prestige is at stake to retain the seat as incumbent MP Ram Swaroop Sharma, known for his proximity to the Chief Minister, is facing anti-incumbency and his main opponent is defected BJP leader and former Telecom Minister Sukh Ram who is campaigning aggressively for his grandson and Congress greenhorn candidate Ashray Sharma.
Also, Thakur's home Assembly constituency Seraj falls in the Mandi Lok Sabha seat.
"It is literally a do-or-die battle for Jai Ram Thakur as it is his prestige to retain the Mandi seat," a senior BJP leader told IANS.
He said the Chief Minister is devoting most of his time and energy in the Mandi constituency in comparison to three other seats in the state to ensure victory.
The contest on this seat has become interesting with Congress candidate's father Anil Sharma, a legislator from Mandi (Sadar), is still with the BJP and he is not campaigning for his party.
The campaigning in Mandi turned high decibel with aggressive touring, though delayed deliberately, of Congress veteran and six-time Chief Minister Virbhadra Singh.
He drew a comparison between the 32-year-old Congress and the 60-year-old BJP candidates by saying, "Ashray is young and an educated youth, who wants to serve the people of Mandi. So you should give him a chance as a Congress MP. My blessings are with Ashray."
Without mincing words, he didn't forget to remind his former Cabinet Minister, who is the father of the party's candidate, to join the election campaign that will unite the family.
"It will be a good sign for the party as well as for Ashray. It is not my direction, but an expectation," Virbhadra Singh, 83, said.
Chief Minister Thakur is also not missing any opportunity to take a jibe at his former Power Minister Anil Sharma, saying, "He has resigned from the Cabinet. We hope he should now join the family by resigning from the party too."
Addressing an election meeting, Thakur said: "For me, the country is supreme. But for Pandit Sukh Ram, it's the family that is supreme. He always played family politics as per his convenience."
"Pandit Sukh Ram is a veteran leader and he has to realise that his innings in politics are almost over. At this ripe age, Sukh Ram is spoiling the political career of his son and grandson," the Chief Minister said.
Popularly known as Panditji in Mandi, six-time MLA and three-time MP Sukh Ram, 91, and his grandson Ashray Sharma rejoined the Congress on March 25 after quitting the BJP.
Playing an emotional card, Panditji, who often breaks down on the stage, is pleading voters by saying, "My son and Ashray's father Anil Sharma could not attend the rally, but his blessings are always with Ashray."
Mandi is one of the country's largest constituencies comprising Kullu, Mandi and some areas of Chamba and Shimla districts, besides the tribal-dominated Assembly seats of Kinnaur, Lahaul and Spiti.
The Mandi Lok Sabha seat has been a traditional Congress bastion and the party lost it for the first time in 1977.
Political observers say Ashray Sharma is also cashing in on the legacy of his father Anil Sharma, who was a minister in the state in 1993-97 and in 2012-17.
Sukh Ram has been dubbed an 'Aya Ram Gaya Ram'.
Himachal Pradesh's four Lok Sabha seats -- Shimla (reserved), Kangra, Hamirpur and Mandi -- will vote on May 19.