Battle of the old guards in Himachal Pradesh

Last Updated: Tue, Nov 07, 2017 16:24 hrs
Virbhadra Singh and Prem Kumar Dhumal

The approaching Himachal Pradesh assembly elections could be the bellwether for other elections down the road. All eyes are on the usual suspects – Rahul Gandhi of the Congress and the Prime Minister. Both have been doing the rounds; most recently Rahul in a speech in the state on Monday said the Goods and Services Tax (GST) will undergo changes to provide relief to traders and consumers if the Congress comes back to power in 2019.

On the other side of the aisle, Home Minister Rajnath Singh blamed the Virbhadra Singh-led Congress government in the state for women in the light of the recent rape and murder of a schoolgirl in the state. He brought in reinforcements in the form of Uttar Pradesh Chief Minister Yogi Adityanath, Uttarakhand Chief Minister Trivendra Singh Rawat and Union Ministers Jagat Prakash Nadda and Smriti Irani who addressed rallies of their own.

On the BJP side, party president Amit Shah announced Prem Kumar Dhumal as the party’s chief ministerial candidate in Himachal Pradesh. The decision came late and till Saturday was not clear if it would declare a chief ministerial candidate for the November 9 elections.

Journalist Sanjeev Singh in a column for Times of India writes on the choice of Chief Ministerial candidate by the BJP in Himachal Pradesh shows the party is being pragmatic in its functioning and choices –

“Political experts believe the battle for top honors in Himachal BJP was between two-time chief minister Dhumal and Union health minister JP Nadda. While Dhumal is popular among BJP cadre, Nadda made a name for himself within the party due to his organizational skills”.

“Though Nadda may boast of his proximity to Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Shah, he lacks the pan-state appeal of Dhumal nurtured since 1982 when he became vice-president of BJP’s youth wing”.

“This was in line with the feedback received by Shah from party cadre as well that a local face was needed to counter the adverse effects of economic slowdown. This is also a reflection that the party cannot rely solely on Modi’s charisma to cross the finish line in the state”.

The decision to announce a Chief Ministerial candidate days before the state goes to the polls is a departure for the BJP. In the past, the party did not announce or mention anyone in the run up to assembly elections in Uttar Pradesh, Uttarakhand, Maharashtra, Jharkhand, and Haryana to name a few.

The Indian Express editorial stated that in the past, the BJP fought and won assembly elections without projecting chief ministerial candidates; since the ascent of Modi to the national stage –

“The BJP’s decision to project Dhumal, midway in the campaign, may have been influenced by its main rival in the state, the Congress, backing the present CM, Virbhadra Singh, for another term and mocking the BJP campaign as “bin dulhe ki baraat” (a marriage party without groom)”.

“The PM loomed large in all these state campaigns and his wide appeal made the need for a charismatic local leader to head the state government even post-poll seems irrelevant. The Himachal example, however, points to the irresistible federal push in the Indian polity even at a time when the BJP has been emphasizing the winnability of a centralized model and strategy”.

The strategy seems to be to capitalize on the success of Modi as a national leader since 2014 seemed to turn the tide in the BJP towards a more centralized and focused party structure.

“The leader-centric politics championed by Modi could arguably press home, rather than decrease, the demand for a regional face to complement, and even amplify, the central message. Shah’s words in Himachal about a dual leadership — Modi at the Centre and Dhumal in the region — may mirror the BJP acknowledgement of a new political imperative”.

Dhumal is a senior party leader and a two-time chief minister of the hill state. The state has traditionally always voted in favor of anti-incumbency and has seen power alternate between Congress and BJP governments for the last five terms. If this trend holds, Virbhadra Singh would be replaced by Dhumal for this third term.

The Times of India editorial states that announcing the CM candidate for Himachal ahead of the polls shows that the BJP is not necessarily just relying on a national figure like Modi, but it also empowers regional leaders –

“BJP had relied on Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s charisma during the March assembly elections and won the crucial states of Uttar Pradesh and Uttarakhand without a CM candidate. Dhumal’s anointment perhaps also reflects BJP’s decision not to over-burden Modi”.

“BJP has experimented with a chief ministerial face in only three states of Delhi, Goa and Assam ever since they swept to power at the Centre in 2014. Projection of Sarbananda Sonowal in Assam and Manohar Parrikar in Goa delivered handsome returns for BJP.”

“This should encourage BJP to delegate more authority and empower regional leaders, as Modi’s charisma may not work everywhere. Perhaps it is time for BJP to go ahead and strongly project a chief ministerial face in Gujarat as well.”

The ruling Congress in the state is relying heavily on 83-year-old Virbhadra Singh, a six-time Chief Minister and five-time Lok Sabha member. Singh has announced that this will be his last election. Like Dhumal, he is a veteran of party politics for more than five decades. The criticism laid against him is that he stifles and actively discourages the rise of a second generation of leaders in the state.

As the two elder statesmen battle it out at the top, their sons wait in the wings. Virbhadra Singh’s son, Vikramaditya Singh, is the head of the Himachal Pradesh Youth Congress. He makes his debut in the Shimla Rural seat which is a reliably Congress; hoping name recognition will play a role in helping him get elected. A contrast to Singh’s son is Anurag Thakur, son of Dhumal who is a rising star in the BJP. Often referred to as “tikka” meaning an inheritor, Thakur doesn’t use or invoke his father’s second name.

More columns by Varun Sukumar

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