What screamed the loudest on five-time legislator Jairam Thakur’s resume was his low profile—an understated quality that moulded his personal and political character. That he is. Even today. It stood out when he needed the most, back in 2017 as the BJP leadership scrambled to pick the chief minister for the hill state of Himachal Pradesh after the party’s landslide victory but its frontrunner for the post lost the election.
The leadership glossed over invariables such as Thakur was low key, he was not a leader with proven mass following, his experience in governance was a brief stint as minister in Prem Kumar Dhumal’s cabinet in 2009-12. Picking the man from Mandi was the centrepiece of the BJP’s calculated plan to build a crop of young leaders for the future; leaders who would shake off the long shadows of stalwarts—such as Shanta Kumar and two-time CM Dhumal in Himachal. At 56, chief minister Thakur represents the generational change in Himachal politics. As does his team of ministers. Other than three seniors, all are his RSS-ABVP-BJYM contemporaries and a few classmates too.
Thakur’s resume has not changed much in the years since he was chosen to rule the state. His governance has been uneventful—reflective of his personality, although he got things done in unpresuming ways. Critics complain about his weak grip on the bureaucracy and effective control over his ministers. He is also accused of squandering crucial time in implementing projects and faltering during the pandemic. But the BJP doesn’t think so, which is a good sign for the chief minister before the state votes a new assembly towards the end of 2022.
Thakur has his plusses. He is admired by his opponents within and outside the party because he has never shown signs of being vindictive or being ambitious either. A high point of his rule is putting an end to slapping vigilance cases against political rivals. All previous governments—of BJP’s Dhumal and Congress’s Virbhadra Singh— wasted time and resources in settling scores and in political vendetta. Singh, who passed away this July, often praised him publicly by calling him a gentleman politician. Thakur hasn’t had any dissidence or threat to his leadership unlike the BJP-ruled state of Uttarakhand, where chief ministers were changed thrice this year. His tenure has been free from controversies and corruption charges. His stability also stems from the fact that he always made himself accessible to the public and party ranks alike.
With more than a year to go before the polls, Thakur has time to recover from the Covid disruptions and implement his development and welfare initiatives as well as public outreach programmes, some of which were deferred because of the pandemic. He is, no doubt, confident. "I will be in the same place in 2022 where you find me today," he said recently. His confidence cannot be whisked away. The BJP’s main opponent, the Congress, is in disarray—after losing the 2017 polls, all four Lok Sabha seats in 2019, and two state assembly bypolls. Besides, it lost Virbhadra Singh, its tallest leader in the state. If the BJP wins four upcoming bypolls—three assembly seats and the Mandi Lok Sabha seat that the late Virbhadra Singh held—the chief minister would cement his position as the leader pivotal for the party’s future. The outcome in Mandi—the CM’s home district—will be counted to his credit, or discredit.
The BJP is counting on Thakur, a mason’s son, to build brick by brick, stone for stone a strong support base that will see through anti-incumbency in a state that has never voted the same party twice to power after five years. And Thakur can count on his experience as state BJP president when the party on his watch won 41 of the 68 seats in the 2009 assembly elections, making way for Dhumal’s second stint as CM. Now, Mission Repeat 2022, the slogan of BJP national president J.P. Nadda, who is from the state, is the focus area of Thakur and the party’s rank and file. Nadda is keeping a tab on the government, ministers and MLAs, and will likely tour the state ahead of the bypolls—which are as crucial for the party as for the chief minister.
The bypolls are seen as Thakur’s litmus test, though the coast looks clear for him to remain the BJP’s chosen man for the state. Or so it seems. There’s another leader who ticks qualities required in the BJP’s plan for younger leaders to take over. That’s Anurag Thakur, son of former CM Dhumal and junior finance minister in the Narendra Modi government, who has been hoisted to the cabinet with the information and broadcasting portfolio in last week’s Union ministry reshuffle. For his part, Dhumal is likely to have a major role in 2022 because of his support base. Speculation swirls that Dhumal might throw in his lot to avenge his 2017 defeat. In that case, the high command’s call will be eagerly awaited.