With just 68 Assembly seats, Himachal Pradesh is a small but complex state and elections here aren't easy to predict.
Most seats have under 90,000 voters and some, like Lahaul & Spiti, have less than 30,000. Lesser voters means narrower margins. A few thousand votes could change equations in a seat, rebel candidates polling even a few hundred votes could make the difference between winning and losing for the bigger parties.
The state is also highly diverse, with several languages and dialects spoken within its boundaries.
However, there are a few broad trends that are clearly visible in the poll-bound state. We'll examine these with the help of data, inputs from the ground and a little bit of history.
DATA SUGGESTS BJP IS AT AN ADVANTAGE
Now, this doesn't mean we are predicting a BJP win. In fact, if we go by the state's history of voting out incumbent governments, the ruling BJP may end up losing to the Congress. But data does suggest that the BJP goes into this election at an advantage. There are three elements to this.
1. BJP Has a Higher Number of Strong Seats
Based on the data from the past two Assembly elections - 2012 and 2017 - BJP has a higher number of stronger seats as compared to the Congress. There are 18 seats which the BJP won in both 2012 and 2017 while the corresponding number for the Congress is 12.
We have taken only these two elections in our analysis as these took place following the redrawing of boundaries under the delimitation process.
Now, this doesn't necessarily mean that BJP will hold all these 18 seats and the Congress all 12. In many of these seats margins aren't very big and they could easily change hands.
But it does given an idea that in a state that is known to to switch every five years, not all seats change hands.
In fact, out of 68, there are 23 constituencIes which were truly bellwether seats - that they went with the Congress in 2012 and BJP in 2017.
2. BJP Has Led in 5 out of the Last 6 Elections in HP
The BJP has actually increased its domination over Himachal Pradesh's electoral politics over the last 15 years or so.
In the three Assembly and three Lok Sabha elections that have taken place since 2007, the BJP had a lead over the Congress in five. The only exception was the 2012 Assembly election.
At the Lok Sabha level in particular, Himachal Pradesh has been voting decisively in favour of the BJP for the last three elections. In fact, its lead at the Lok Sabha level has been progressively increasing.
3. PM Modi is Popular in the State
According to the CVoter pre-poll survey, 64.3 percent people rated the PM's performance as "good" while only 19.4 percent rated it as "poor".
Naturally, the BJP is hoping that the 'Modi Factor' gives it a boost the way it did in the neighbouring state of Uttarakhand earlier in 2022.
Of course, the 'Modi factor' has had an uneven impact in state elections. In a number of states, BJP witnessed a massive dip in vote share in Assembly elections compared to Lok Sabha elections - Haryana, Jharkhand, Delhi, Bihar, West Bengal being good examples in the recent past.
However, the BJP would hope that at least the PM's popularity helps it contain some of the losses that it is bound to incur due to anti-incumbency.
SO WHAT COULD GO WRONG?
While it is true that PM Modi is popular in the state, the same can't be said about incumbent CM Jai Ram Thakur.
According to the CVoter survey, 37.6 percent people rated Thakur's performance as 'good' and 33.7 percent rated it as 'poor'.
The BJP's drubbing at the hands of the Congress in the bypolls last year was a clear indication of the dissatisfaction against the state government.
When we travelled through the state, we found that in a number of places people were unhappy with the state government but said they would still back PM Modi at the national level.
Then in a few areas such as Haroli, Una, Dalhousie to name a few - a number of people said they were reasonably satisfied with the Congress at the local level, while still supporting Modi nationally.
A number of local factors are also preventing the 'Modi factor' from dominating the election:
The non-implementation of the Old Pension Scheme is causing a great deal of anguish for government employees, a sizable constituency in the state.
Unemployment and fall in income levels due to COVID-related tourism slump.
Rising prices of essential commodities.
Inadequate returns for apple growers
Water supply woes in some areas.
Maintenance of roads
The issues are also contributing to the broader narrative that CM Jai Ram Thakur, despite having a decent personal image, had a lacklustre tenure in terms of work done.
Even in his home district Mandi, a number of people complained that much of the development work was concentrated in his own constituency Seraj.
Though one must admit that Thakur's image did improve in the last couple of months due to a slew of announcments.
There are two major X-factors in these elections.
First, rebels. Both the BJP and the Congress are facing rebels in different constituencies.
Both parties have tried hard, with varying degrees of success to contain the damage.
The Congress may have done better than many expecting in handling the infighting in its ranks.
Second, the Aam Aadmi Party. Just after AAP's huge win in Punjab, it seemed as if the party will make a major breakthrough in neighbouring Himachal. But a lot went wrong for it since then - from Sidhu Moose Wala's killing in Punjab to the arrest of its HP incharge Satyendra Jain.
Now even AAP insiders say that they have more hopes from Gujarat than Himachal. However, even if AAP secured 5-6 percent votes, it could alter equations in a number of constituencies.
To conclude, this is not an easy election to call. The state's history - of alternating between BJP and Congress - may favour the latter. On the other hand, the arithmetic may support the BJP as we showed above.
In the end, the battle may come down to local level factors in each of the 68 seats.