During the Bharatiya Janata Party national President JP Nadda’s recent four-day visit—his first after the party’s assembly win in four states—and an upcoming tour of Kangra from April 22, his focus continues to be centered on the Centre’s flagship health care initiatives, public welfare schemes and infrastructure projects. This kind of preparation has put the BJP on election mode, much in advance.
Also, a great political significance is being attached to Nadda’s announcement that Chief Minister Jai Ram Thakur will not be replaced ahead of the assembly polls unlike the case in Uttarakhand and Gujarat. The move was not unpredictable but aimed to keep the BJP flock together under Thakur, particularly after the Aam Aadmi Party raised a pitch of non-performance against the HP CM and the BJP government in the past four years.
It was Delhi Deputy Chief Minister Manish Sisodia whose remarks about BJP's move to replace Jai Ram with Union Minister for Information and Broadcasting Anurag Thakur had triggered political uncertainties. Though his statement was aimed to make anti-incumbency an issue in the next elections, the BJP became quite defensive. The AAP is aggressively focusing on Himachal Pradesh. The party wants to make the elections into a triangular contest and position itself as a new political alternative in the state where till now BJP and Congress have been alternating in power every five years.
The BJP after returning to power in four states—Uttar Pradesh, Uttarakhand, Manipur and Goa—has a task cut out to break the myth about incumbent parties unable to form successive governments. Nadda, who hails from Himachal Pradesh, can’t afford to see BJP not form government again under his tenure as the party’s national president. He held a road show in Shimla on April 9 and held back-to-back interactions with MLAs, party office-bearers and core committee members, making it clear that the party not only will fight elections on the state government's performance, but it will also look at welfare measures and ongoing direct benefit schemes.
The BJP had returned to power in 2017, encashing on Prime Minister Narendra Modi's popularity and that could remain its potent weapon against the Opposition of both Congress and AAP once again. Modi is likely to tour the state soon. But AAP Convener Arvind Kejriwal has already hit the road in Himachal Pradesh. First, he held a rally and road show at Mandi on April 6. After successful mobilisation at Mandi, he will visit Kangra on April 23.
Kangra is the state's biggest district with 15 assembly seats. This is a politically sensitive district where any party winning maximum seats forms the next government. The AAP strategy is obviously to make its dent in Kangra, besides Mandi, which is CM Jai Ram Thakur’s home district, and it is here the BJP had won nine out of 10 assembly seats, facilitating Thakur's rise to the chief ministerial position.
However, the situation seems to have changed quite a lot. The Congress had won the Mandi Lok Sabha bypolls in November 2021, causing huge jolt and demoralisation in the ruling party ranks. Still the Congress organisational structure and leadership is quite in shambles and it gives a natural benefit to AAP to make inroads into Congress territory as the party has no leader with mass appeal like its stalwart Virbhadra Singh, who died in July 2021.
But on realising that AAP’s influence is growing, the BJP has started directly targeting the party even as earlier Chief Minister Jai Ram Thakur had termed it as an irrelevant political entity in the state. On the heels of Kejriwal’s Mandi tour, the BJP got AAP state party president Anup Kersari, three-time office bearer and state Mahila wing chief, admitted to the party. AAP retaliated by winning over Harmail Dhiman, a former SC Morcha member, besides several other disgruntled leaders from the BJP and Congress.
Further to counter AAP, the CM Thakur announced three concessions at Chamba during the state-level Himachal Day function: women are entitled to a 50 per cent discount in Himachal Road Transport Corporation buses, and zero power bill and water bill for all rural consumers. The move entails a huge burden on the exchequer and sets a bad precedent for the BJP, which has its governments in 18 states. But AAP is definitely rejoicing.
“This is clearly a poll gimmick. The BJP is trying to copy the Kejriwal mode of governance as till now they have been opposed to such benefits to the people,” Sisodia had reacted on April 15, within hours after the CM's announcement.
However, the Congress could not fight AAP or the BJP, and thus lost its position in its traditional political bastion, though much credit to the formation of the state goes to the Congress that also ruled it for four decades. There is also a complacency factor in the Congress after the party victory in November 2021 bypoll, which Pratibha Singh, Virbhadra Singh's wife won after having invoked the sympathy card for her husband. The Congress feels that it can ride back to power, maintaining the same trend as in the bypoll. However, it will be a mistake for the party to view the Mandi bypoll as its revival or BJP's next successor in the government.
“Bypoll results in Mandi or in three other assembly constituencies was definitely a blow to the party, but a timely alert. The party went back to find the reasons for reversals. We have made several corrections, strengthened cadres and improved coordination between the government and party. We are sure to repeat the government in 2022,” says BJP state president Suresh Kashyap.
The BJP finds Jai Ram Thakur as the most dependable choice in its preparedness for the elections. There are reasons for this. He is five-time MLA from Seraj—a remote hilly region of Mandi and had been state BJP president when the party returned to power in 2007 for the second time under Prem Kumar Dhumal. The party views him as a gentle face. He is known for his closeness to the RSS. His low-profile image is an asset. He has his hand in the organisation and did not face any rebellion from the MLAs or party leaders since he took over as chief minister in 2017.
Prime Minister Narendra Modi, at his Mandi Rally, praised Thakur, saying, “He is energetic and popular. He (CM) and his entire team have performed well, and did not allow development to stop even during the Covid.” Again, on the 75th Himachal Day—April 15, Modi, through a video message to the people of Himachal Pradesh, praised Jai Ram for his leadership.
The party in the coming days will have to take a call on former Chief Minister Prem Kumar Dhumal, who is keen to contest the assembly polls from Sujanpur—a constituency where he lost in 2017, and thus missed the chance to become Chief Minister, for the third time. How and why he lost the poll still continues to haunt his loyalists who often see a scam behind his deprivation from CM's post. Dhumal is keen to vindicate his position by contesting the next poll for which he has been working quite hard on the ground. JP Nadda, then the union health minister, was also a strong contender for the chief ministerial post in 2017, but it was Jai Ram Thakur who it was assumed would bring a generational change in the state's political horizon. Will he be able to break the myth of bringing the party back to power remains to be seen.