SHIMLA: A day ahead of the counting of ballots cast in the 68 assembly segments in Himachal Pradesh, both the ruling Congress and opposition BJP on Sunday expressed confidence about forming the next government in the hill state.
While most exit poll surveys indicated BJP's return to power with an absolute majority in the November 9 assembly elections, political observers said it was a neck-and-neck contest between the Congress and the BJP since there is "no clear wave in favour of any party".
Interestingly, the state has alternately elected Congress and Bharatiya Janata Party governments since 1985. In 2012, the Congress had won 36 seats, while BJP got 26, and independents six.
The BJP is desperately trying to return to the state's helm after facing a humiliating defeat in the 2012 elections. The Congress, led by Chief Minister Virbhadra Singh, is hoping to repeat its 2012 win and retain power owing to "all-round development" in five years.
Virbhadra Singh brushed aside exit poll predictions and said "my government is going to be repeated".
"The exit polls are manipulated, not scientific. In fact, they should be banned. Since I campaigned across the state, I know the people's pulse and better understand their mood," he told reporters in Shimla.
On the other hand, an optimistic BJP chief ministerial candidate Prem Kumar Dhumal told IANS: "People have voted for change and we are going to form the government with a record win."
"We have set a target of 50-plus seats. The exit polls are not a surprise for us," the two-time Chief Minister said.
Chief Electoral Officer Pushpendra Rajput said counting of ballots would start at 48 counting centres at 8 a.m. on Monday.
A total of 37,83,580 electors cast votes out of a total of 50,25,941 on November 9, a record 75.28 per cent polling.
The Communist Party of India-Marxist had fielded 14 candidates while the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP), which made its debut in Himachal in the 2014 Lok Sabha elections, preferred to stay away this time.
It is literally a do-or-die battle for both the chief ministerial faces. Virbhadra Singh, 83, is pushing hard to get to the helm for the seventh time, while Dhumal, 73, is making a strong bid to ensure his party's win with a record margin to silence his detractors within the party.
For almost two decades, both the parties in the state have fought almost every assembly and Lok Sabha polls under their leadership.
"This time, Virbhadra Singh is fighting on two fronts -- one to establish his son Vikramaditya Singh, who is contesting his maiden assembly election. Second, to ensure the Congress repeat performance as he forced the party to announce him as the chief ministerial candidate despite all odds," a political observer told IANS.
For Dhumal, it's a battle for survival after the defeat in the 2012 assembly polls. Since then, he has been almost marginalised by a BJP faction led by Union Health Minister J.P. Nadda.
After outwitting rivals within the Congress, Virbhadra Singh donned the battlegear much ahead of his arch rival Dhumal, whose name was cleared by the BJP as its chief ministerial face just days ahead of the polling on November 9.
Both Virbhadra Singh and Dhumal are seeking re-election from new seats and it is not going to be an easy win for them.