Independents may hold the key to forming the next government in Himachal Pradesh after the poll results are declared Dec 20.
There is a neck-to-neck contest between arch-rivals BJP and Congress and rebels from both the parties, who are in the fray as independents, are likely to upset poll calculations, say political observers in the hill state which went to the polls Nov 4.
Though the number of independent candidates winning in the polls since 1967 has been declining, their support is still crucial in government formation, as was the case in 1998.
This year, legislators who have defected from the BJP and the Congress after being denied the party ticket might get elected as independents to the 68-member state assembly.
Of the 459 candidates testing political waters this year, 106 are contesting as independents.
"Since both the BJP and the Congress are faction-ridden and facing credibility crises, their fight seems to be close. There are chances that both may fall short of a simple majority. In that case, they have to bank on independents," said a political observer, who did not want to be identified.
Himachal's poll history offers some indications.
In 1967, 16 of the 147 independents won with a poll percentage of 38.10.
In 1972, seven of the 148 independents were elected to the assembly.
In the 1982 polls, 205 independents were in the fray. Six won with 14.23 percent of the votes. The Congress, which was four seats short of a simple majority, then had to secure the support of independents.
However, in 1990 and 1998, only one independent each was elected.
Interestingly, Ramesh Dhawala, a BJP candidate from Jwalamukhi, after being denied the party ticket, had won as an independent in 1998 and was instrumental in forming Prem Kumar Dhumal's first government in March that year.
That year, the Congress had won 31 seats and the BJP 29 (one legislator died before the results). Himachal Vikas Congress (HVC) won four seats. The BJP formed the government with the support of HVC legislators and the independent.
In the last assembly polls, the BJP won 41 seats, the Congress 23, the BSP one and independents three (out of 60 candidates).
Political leaders said some BJP and Congress rebels were likely to play spoilsport this year.
The Congress rebels include legislator Yograj (Dehra), former minister Ishwar Dass (Ani) and Dharamvir Dhami (Manali). BJP legislator Roop Singh (Sundernagar) and Sudha Sushant (Jawali), wife of MP Rajan Sushant, are contesting as independents.
But chief ministerial candidates of the Congress and the BJP, Virbhadra Singh and Prem Kumar Dhumal, respectively speak of his party gaining a majority.
"We will get the numbers and form the government," Virbhadra Singh told IANS.
"The heavy turnout (73.92 percent) is a clear indication that people have reposed faith in our government and voted to give another chance to our party," Dhumal said.
(Vishal Gulati can be contacted at email@example.com)