Nadda, Dhumal or a dark horse: who will be the BJP's face in Himachal?
In a break from tradition, the Bharatiya Janata Party is not declaring its chief ministerial candidate in poll-bound Himachal Pradesh. There are indications that the party will contest elections, scheduled for the end of this year, with Prime Minister Narendra Modi as its mascot.
A large section of party cadres and supporters are of the view that the BJP's central leadership will declare its new face if it manages to win the polls, and will not give the reins to the former CM Prem Kumar Dhumal, although his name is still being counted among the front-runners for the post. There are several more names being discussed – within the BJP as well as among the public.
1. JP Nadda
The most prominent name among the potential candidates is that of Union Health Minister Jagat Prakash Nadda. With age on his side and his close proximity to both Modi as well as BJP national president Amit Shah, besides being in the good books of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, this Rajya Sabha MP from Bilaspur district is among the most dynamic BJP leaders. Besides being a minister, he is also a member of the BJP's parliamentary board.
An ideal candidate in many ways, he is a Brahmin and a law graduate. He is still remembered in the Himachal Pradesh University among the prominent student leaders who laid a strong foundation for the RSS's student organisation, the Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad (ABVP). Although the ABVP has recently faced defeats from the the leftist Students' Federation of India, it has maintained a strong presence among the student community.
Nadda was first elected to the state Assembly in 1993, and went on to serve as the leader of his party. He won in 1998 and became the state minister of health and family welfare, along with parliamentary affairs during his second term. He was again elected in 2007 and held the forest, environment and science and technology portfolios. He did not contest the assembly polls in 2012 and went on to become a Rajya Sabha member in 2014, becoming Union minister soon after.
He has maintained a high profile in state politics, and has been a key feature in all the important rallies and events organized by the BJP in the recent days. He has also been a prominent feature in the ongoing Parivartan Yatras of the BJP.
Observers say he is a complete politician who never gives in to provocation.
However, his drawback is that while he is known to make a lot of noise about things, there is very little on the ground to substantiate it.This has been evident during his stint as a minister holding various portfolios in Himachal Pradesh, particularly the forest and environment portfolio.
2. PK Dhumal
The next prominent name is that of Prem Kumar Dhumal. His age is being seen as his disadvantage at this point of time. He recently celebrated his 73rd birthday, and given the BJP's new principle of having a 75-year age cap for heading governments, it is being said that he may not be made the chief minister again. But his supporters say that if the BJP can announce BS Yeddyurappa as its chief ministerial candidate in Karnataka, then it can do the same in the case of 73-year-old Dhumal.
Dhumal has been the CM on two occasions. He is still referred to as 'sadak wala CM' because of the improvement in road infrastructure during his regime.
While Dhumal has experience of running the state government, people from his own party and BJP supporters have of late been pointing at his 'cranky' behaviour. Observers say that this comes from his insecurity with regards to being declared the CM candidate.
Sources say that he was recently annoyed at being given the cold shoulder by the party during the campaign for the Shimla Municipal Corporation polls, which the BJP barely managed to win. He also appeared to be miffed with journalists in a recent press briefing after these polls.
There is also a point of view that Dhumal does not enjoy a very cosy relationship with Modi and Shah. This is being cited as a reason for Modi not giving any portfolio to Dhumal's son Anurag Thakur, who is a consecutive three-time Lok Sabha MP from Hamirpur.
3. Ajay Jamwal
Currently, the name that has been circulating the most is that of dark horse Ajay Jamwal. While not much is known about this RSS pracharak from Mandi district, he is said to be a blue-eyed boy of the Sangh, particularly its chief Mohan Bhagwat.
The son of a retired colonel, Jamwal is known to have worked as a top RSS functionary in Solan district, and later in Arunachal Pradesh and also Ladakh. He is credited for strengthening the BJP's organisational structure in Jammu and Kashmir, Punjab and in the Northeast recently. He is expected to be fielded as a BJP candidate from his home town of Jogindernagar.
Observes say that his chances of becoming the next CM get credence from the recent trend adopted by the Sangh Parivar of placing RSS functionaries to head the BJP governments, as has been the case in Haryana, Jharkhand, Uttarakhand, and even Gujarat recently.
Jamwal has not made any public appearance till now, but is being seen as a strong contender for the post if the BJP manages to come to power. His drawback, however, remains his not being a mass leader in the state. Some locals in Jogindernagar also point out that a section of BJP leaders is propping up Jamwal's name just to ensure the party has an easy ride in the area in the polls.
4. Anupam Kher
Of late, the name of actor Anupam Kher has also started doing the rounds among the potential CM candidates. Kher has been in the limelight as a flag bearer of BJP's brand of nationalism, opposing those who have been attacking the Modi regime on issues like intolerance and communalism.
Born in Shimla to a Kashmiri Pandit family, he is remembered in the region for his humble beginnings. His father was a clerk in a government department while he went on to enroll in National School of Drama and then make a name for himself in the world of films. His wife Kirron Kher is a BJP MP from Chandigarh.
Observers say he may be the BJP's choice for MLA from the Shimla (Rural) constituency, the seat currently represented by the Congress's incumbent CM Virbhadra Singh.
But his detractors say that Kher has no connect with the masses, and has been promoting himself more as a Kashmiri Pandit than a Himachali.
While the elections are still some months away, the political fever is rising across the state. There have been reports in a section of the media that the BJP would declare its candidate for the post soon, but this appears to be unlikely.
In fact, Virbhadra has taken a jibe at the opposing party on a couple of occasions, daring the BJP to declare its chief ministerial candidate for the poll battle.
He has reportedly said that only those parties that are not confident about their victory in the polls shy away from declaring their CM candidate. But those which are strong enough always declare their face for the post.