In a break from tradition, Bharatiya Janata Party president Amit Shah on Tuesday announced Prem Kumar Dhumal as its chief ministerial candidate for the upcoming election to the Himachal Pradesh assembly.
A two-time chief minister, 73-year-old Dhumal will now challenge Congress’ Virbhadra Singh in a direct contest on November 9. Notably, Dhumal is just two years away from the BJP’s disqualifying age limit of 75.
Dhumal’s anointment as the chief ministerial pick for the saffron party came after a lot of delay, with at least three other leaders said to be in the fray. These, according to sources, included Kangra strongman Shanta Kumar, BJP’s state president Satpal Satti, the saffron party’s organisational secretary for northeast Ajay Jamwal and Union health minister JP Nadda.
While Kumar, 83, was ruled out due to his age, Satti and Jamwal could not make the cut either due to poor ratings in surveys conducted by the party or for the lack of mass appeal.
Among the primary reasons cited behind Dhumal’s selection by the party high command over Nadda is the caste calculation. Dhumal comes from a dominant caste of Thakurs (over 28 per cent of the state’s population) and commands majority support among sitting legislators.
Nadda, a Brahmin leader with an ABVP background, may have lost out due to the party’s apprehensions regarding the sentiments of the dominant caste. Notably, incumbent Virbhadra Singh also comes from the Thakur community.
Who is Prem Kumar Dhumal
A two-time Chief Minister of Himachal Pradesh, Dhumal held the coveted post from March 1998 to March 2003 and again from January 2008 to December 2012.
He is currently the Leader of Opposition in the state Assembly and an MLA from Sujanpur Constituency for 68th Himachal Pradesh Assembly Elections.
Born on April 10, 1944 in Samirpur village of Hamirpur in the hill-state, Dhumal became vice-president of Bharatiya Janata Yuva Morcha in 1982 and was selected as the saffron party’s candidate for the Hamirpur constituency in 1984 when MLA and state stalwart Jagdev Chand refused to contest.
Dhumal lost that election, but won from Hamirpur in 1989 and 1991, before losing the seat to Vikram Singh Katoch in 1996.
Dhumal later went on to become the president of the BJP’s Himachal Pradesh unit in 1993 and became Chief Minister in March 1998 and headed the BJP-Himachal Vikas Congress coalition government for its full term of five years.
The period also saw a significant infrastructure push, particularly on roads. It was for this reason that Dhumal being fondly called the ‘Sadak walla Chief Minister’.
Dhumal is married to Sheela with whom he has two sons, Arun Thakur and Anurag Thakur who is also a BJP leader and has been a member of the 14th and 15th Lok Sabhas.
Himachal Pradesh has never elected the same government twice in a row. That should make Dhumal’s job much easier. However, what makes his job challenging is that the party is betting big on him to win the state where it is in direct competition with the Congress party.
Expectations from Dhumal are obviously riding high. The BJP, which had won all the four Lok Sabha seats from the state in the 2014 general elections, would look to continue its dominance against the Congress in the hill state.
However, this will not be the first time that Dhumal and Virbhadra Singh will be facing off in a direct contest. The battle for the 2012 Assembly polls also saw a fight between Dhumal, then the CM, and Virbhadra Singh.
In those elections, the Congress won 36 seats with 42.8 per cent vote share while the BJP won 26 seats with 38.4 per cent vote share.
The challenge before Dhumal will be to improve upon BJP’s seats tally from the last elections. Moreover, the announcement of Dhumal’s candidature saw several top leaders lose out.
The real challenge before him will be to keep the flock together – experts see BJP’s move to declare a CM candidate as a bid to control the infighting – and ensure that all ranks within the party work together to ensure BJP’s victory.
Observers have pointed out that Dhumal has been active in the hill-state as compared to Virbhadra and that his connect with the masses will ensure that the BJP returns to power.
We shall know whether that holds true on November 18 when the results are declared.