As Himachal Pradesh voted on 12 November, the political contest in the state seemed to be going down to the wire. This was a historic election as it was the first time in decades that stalwarts Virbhadra Singh and Prem Kumar Dhumal were not in the fray.
The Bharatiya Janata Party clearly seemed to have focussed its campaign on Prime Minister Narendra Modi - the PM even wrote an open letter to the people of Himachal Pradesh a day before polling.
The BJP hoped that it will be able to break Himachal's over three-decade long track record of alternating between it and the Congress.
There are several reasons for the BJP's optimism:
PM Modi is hugely popular in the state
The party won a massive vote share of nearly 70 percent in the Lok Sabha polls
BJP's national president Jagat Prakash Nadda hails from Himachal and has micromanaged the campaign
CM Jai Ram Thakur hails from the battleground district of Mandi, that sends 10 MLAs to the Assembly
The party has deployed vastly more resources and cadres than the Congress, a key factor in a state where many booths are in remote areas.
Nationalism and religiosity both run high in the state
But what about the Congress? How did it manage to take on the BJP's might in the absence of former CM Virbhadra Singh, who passed away in 2021?
We can't say whether the Congress will win or not, but there are six elements to its Himachal Pradesh campaign that helped it give the BJP a run for its money.
1. Localised Campaign
If BJP focused on PM Modi and raked up issues like Uniform Civil Code and the repeal of Article 370 in Jammu and Kashmir, the Congress kept the campaign hyper local. The party focused on local issues and concerns and tailored them to the realities of different constituencies.
What helped in this effort, is the fact that the Congress has a strong set of local leaders in the state who are popular in their respective regions - such as PCC president Pratibha Singh in Shimla, Mukesh Agnihotri in Una, Dhani Ram Shandil in Solan, Asha Kumari in Dalhousie, Sukhwinder Sukhu in Hamirpur to name a few.
But it's not just these stalwarts, this hyperlocal energy was shown by a number of other candidates as well such as young Chaitanya Sharma in Gagret in Kangra district.
The energy shown by the state Congress leadership also prevented the Aam Aadmi Party from making inroads. As it is AAP's campaign got derailed due to the arrest of Satyendra Jain and Arvind Kejriwal becoming more focused on Gujarat.
2. Economic issues
"We focused on issues that matter to the people. All our promises are directed towards making a difference in their everyday life of people," PCC chief Pratibha Singh told The Quint during the campaign.
The Congress promised to increase the income of and offer better prices to apple growers, employment opportunities for 5 lakh youth, payment of Rs 1500 per month for women, and return to the Old Pension Scheme, among other promises.
Almost all of the Congress' 10 guarantees for Himachal Pradesh are related to people's livelihood.
3. Old Pension Scheme
Return to the Old Pension Scheme became a key issue for voters in the Himachal Pradesh election campaign. To some extent, the BJP had underestimated its impact.
In the new pension scheme, employees contribute 10 percent of their basic salary for their pension, while 14 percent is given by the state government. In the old scheme, the government contributed the entire amount.
In times of high inflation and lesser job opportunities for the next generation, a return to this scheme means a lot for the state's government employees. Out of 2.5 lakh government employees, 1.5 lakh are said to be under the new pension scheme. But this issue doesn't just affect these 1.5 lakh people, but also their entire family and kin. In a state where there are only about 55 lakh voters, this could be a decisive number.
The Congress played the OPS card to the hilt, while the BJP was seen as trying to dodge the issue.
4. Balance Between State Leaders
The lack of a CM face turned out to be a hidden blessing for the Congress as it pushed all the state leaders to cooperate and work harder in their respective areas. Projecting one face or the other could have potentially upset other leaders and pushed them towards the BJP.
Even the Congress' election related social media content, showcased a collective leadership such as this graphic below featuring Pratibha Singh, Mukesh Agnihotri and Sukhwinder Sukhu.
The Congress didn't just manage to prevent big defections but also contained the rebellion a bit better than the BJP. Being seen as the underdogs was beneficial in this respect as the tussle for tickets was slightly lesser than what the BJP had to face.
5. A Different Kind of Double Engine: Bhupesh Baghel and Priyanka Gandhi
Busy with the Bharat Jodo Yatra, Rahul Gandhi stayed away from the Himachal Pradesh campaign. In some ways, this may have helped the Congress.
It prevented the election from becoming a 'Modi vs Rahul' battle, unlike the Lok Sabha polls which the BJP won in a landslide.
Among national leaders, the Himachal Pradesh campaign was led by Chhattisgarh CM Bhupesh Baghel, general secretary Priyanka Gandhi Vadra and in-charge Rajiv Shukla.
Part of the reason the Congress managed to balance between different state leaders is the Chhattisgarh model.
In the 2018 Chhattisgarh election, the party didn't project any CM candidate against BJP's three time CM Raman Singh. Instead it projected a collective leadership of Bhupesh Baghel, TS Singh Deo and Tamradhwaj Sahu, each representing a different social group.
It pursued the same strategy in the 2021 Assam election, which was also handled by Chhattisgarh CM Bhupesh Baghel. Though the party lost the election, it did manage to contain infighting at least during the election.
Baghel handled the Himachal election as well and followed the same approach. Some of the promises - such as purchase of cowdung cakes at Rs 2 per kg - are also from Baghel's experiments in Chhattisgarh.
Another aspect of the Chhattisgarh model that was visible in Assam as well as Himachal, was giving the elections a strong local flavour.
Priyanka Gandhi Vadra campaigned extensively in Himachal Pradesh, the way she had done in Assam as well. She and Baghel worked together for the Uttar Pradesh elections as well but the results were quite bad for the Congress.
Giving greater prominence to Baghel and Priyanka Gandhi in the Hindi belt - where Rahul Gandhi's ratings seem to be unimpressive - is an interesting experiment that the Congress seems to be trying. Another important emerging face in this space is Sachin Pilot, who also held a number of well-attended rallies in Himachal Pradesh.
6. Hardly Any Attacks on PM Modi
The party largely refrained from attacking PM Modi, which was a sensible move given his popularity in the state. Attacking him also would have been counterproductive in the Congress' efforts to localise the campaign.
Instead the party's focus on economic issues ended up forcing PM Modi to attack the Congress' guarantees in his speeches
There are cultural reasons for this also. A Congress leader from Punjab involved in the Himachal Pradesh campaign observed that voters in Himachal Pradesh don't like too much negativity - be it in terms of attacking the PM, CM or even the opposing candidate.
"That's why we kept it simple and focused only on our promises. It was new for many of us from other states where calling out rivals is the norm," the leader said.