Himachal Pradesh polls: With Dhumal at the helm, BJP is on the defensive
The Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) has been compelled to play on the defensive in the poll bound hill state of Himachal Pradesh. The party was bragging about setting a target of 50 plus seats in the state Assembly of 68. Its 'more loyal than the king' leaders at the local level went to the extent of raising slogans of 60 plus seats. Now it is not speaking of these targets any more.
The declaration of Prem Kumar Dhumal as the chief ministerial candidate by the BJP's national president Amit Shah on Tuesday afternoon at a rally in Rajgarh, is being seen as a defensive posture by the party. Up till now the central leadership of the party had refrained from announcing a chief ministerial candidate as it wanted to follow the strategy adopted in Uttar Pradesh and Uttarakhand earlier this year where the chief ministers were eventually appointed by the party high command. But Himachal was proving to be a different ball game.
Various factions that supported the top runners including Dhumal and Union health minister Jagat Prakash Nadda were wary of each other and this was impacting the morale of the party workers who were apprehending that the party would impose someone like top RSS functionary Ajay Jamwal or even the state BJP chief Sat Pal Satti.
Sources say that the BJP has already botched up the ticket distribution in the state to some extent and several workers are pointing at plain arrogance of Amit Shah in centralising the process and not paying heed to the suggestions coming from veterans from the state who are much more well-versed with the dynamics at the ground level.
“The party needed to address the caste equations as well. In Himachal, the Rajputs account for 37 per cent voters while the Brahmins account of a mere 18 per cent. Dhumal is a Rajput and Nadda comes from the latter category,” pointed a political analyst.
Reports say that Amit Shah had a meeting with the top state leadership on Monday night where the ground scenario was assessed and it was decided that Dhumal would be declared the face of the party. Senior party leader Arun Jaitley had hinted on Sunday that the chief ministerial face of the party would be a well experienced legislator from the state.
Dhumal himself was keen on being declared the face and the lobby supporting him, including some journalists, had been batting for him.
Observers point out that the BJP's top leadership was not sure about Dhumal as the next chief minister in the event of the party winning the polls. “Had this been the case, it would not have shifted him out of his constituency of Hamirpur and fielded him from Sujanpur. Prime Minister Narendra Modi had chosen to address a rally on Nadda's turf before the polls were announced to shower sops on the state. Had the party been clear on Dhumal, a similar rally would have been held on his turf. Even now Amit Shah announced his name on the second day of his state tour. He could have done so immediately on arrival,” pointed a political observer.
It is also being said that Dhumal was chosen as he is known to be close to PM Narendra Modi. Modi was the BJP in-charge for Himachal Pradesh in the 1990s and he often used to stay with Dhumal during his visits to the state. Modi is said to have played a key role in Dhumal’s rise as well as the sidelining of his rival Shanta Kumar.
A few days ago, a video had gone viral in the state that showed Dhumal wiping his tears. Although the occasion where he was seen was not specified, the word went around that it was of Dhumal getting upset over the change of his constituency.
From what appeared to be a one-sided battle a few months back, the Himachal polls have become a close contest. By declaring Dhumal as its face, the BJP plans to consolidate its position in lower Himachal areas in Hamirpur and Kangra districts.
Dhumal is now leading the party in the Assembly polls for the fifth time in a row. He led the party to victory in 1998 when the BJP was a divided house and formed a coalition government with Himachal Vikas Congress (HVC) that was formed by former telecom minister Sukh Ram. At that time also he was named the BJP's face three days prior to the polls over former chief minister Shanta Kumar. The Congress returned to power in 2003 and was again ousted by the BJP under Dhumal in 2007. The Congress came back to win the 2012 polls in the face of an overconfident BJP.
But the BJP workers on the ground are having a tough time convincing the voters why Dhumal's name was declared at the eleventh hour. “An internal survey showed that he was the best choice in the party,” said Yogesh Kumar, a party worker in Solan.
Till Sunday, the party was saying that it not naming a chief ministerial face was a strategic move. The BJP had earlier been forced to give tickets to old war horses and others while it had earlier been talking of bringing in new faces and dropping the old ones including some former ministers.
Similarly, its top leaders are desisting from talking about the contentious issues like the implementation of the Goods and Services Tax (GST) and demonetization. It was none other than Modi who had bragged about demonetization in his rally on the Ridge in Shimla in April this year. The general sentiment among the people on these issues probably led him not not make even a mention of it in the Bilaspur rally last month. The workers on the ground can be heard making feeble defense on these issues.
The party leaders are also not touching the issue of illegal construction rampant in the state as the BJP stood with the Congress government when it tried to bring about a retention policy for regularising illegal construction that was eventually stayed by the Himachal Pradesh High Court.
The party is now campaigning on hyper local issues like the rape and murder of a girl in Kotkhai area, the alleged murder of a forest guard by timber mafia etc. The attacks on Chief Minister Virbhadra Singh on the issue of corruption continue but then the BJP leaders also have to explain why they inducted convicted Congress leader Sukh Ram's son Anil Sharma who was a minister in the so called 'corrupt' Virbhadra government into the party and field him from Mandi. It is talking about the central schemes that have been started but the tone and tenor is now defensive.