Bigger role awaits Dhumal ahead of 2022 Assembly polls

Ahead of 68-member Legislative Assembly elections in Himachal Pradesh, the party think tank is of the view that senior party leader and former chief minister Prem Kumar Dhumal can be given more responsibility in order to power the saffron party to victory. An opinion piece by Anil Monocha

Former Chief Minister, Prem Kumar Dhumal has already crossed the BJP’s unofficial cut off age of 75 for its leaders to retire from occupying ministerial berths. However, he continues to be active at the grassroot politics. His connection with masses is his asset and when we caught up with him in Hamirpur, he admitted that “a major reason for loss in by-polls was lack of connection with the voters at the grassroot level”.  There may be other potent reasons like anti-incumbency against the four-year old government, the sympathy generated by the demise of Congress leader, Virbhadra Singh and overconfidence in BJP, but the fact cannot be denied that the party failed to fully utilize Dhumal to win the election.

There is no denying the fact that one of the biggest setbacks for the BJP in October 30 by-election had come from the hill state of Himachal Pradesh, where the ruling party lost all the three assembly seats and the lone Lok Sabha seat where elections were held. In one of the assembly seats, the BJP candidate even lost her security deposit. Indeed, the most worrying message for the BJP came from the Jubbal-Kotkhai constituency where its candidate got just 2644 votes and forfeited her deposit. This marks a big turnaround in the fortunes of the opposition Congress that has been at the receiving end in electoral contests in the hill state after the BJP stormed to power with a thumping majority in 2017.
According to the commission data, the total Congress vote share in the three seats is almost 20% more than the BJP. While the Congress candidates have garnered 48.9% of the votes, the BJP could manage only 28.1% vote share in the three assembly seats.

The results have put a question mark on the ability of chief minister Jai Ram Thakur to steer the party to victory in the assembly elections that are due late next year. This is despite the hard work done by BJP leaders, Sanjay Tandon and Avinash Rai Khanna.  It’s a wake-up call for the BJP. The party is now staring at the difficult question as to whether it can go into polls next year under chief minister Thakur’s leadership. Not only J.P. Nadda, the BJP president at the national level, Union Cabinet minister for Information and Broadcasting Anurag Thakur, who is a key functionary at the Centre, also hails from the hill state. Anurag Thakur also has the advantage of age on his side. The BJP had earlier brought about leadership changes in the neighbouring hill state of Uttarakhand. With the dismal show in Himachal, the party will have to do some hard thinking on Himachal Pradesh as well because by-polls are considered a barometer of public mood.

Prem Kumar Dhumal is a popular face in BJP and Prime Minister, Narendra Modi had himself tweeted before 2017 elections in Himachal that, “Dhumal Ji is among our senior-most leaders with rich administrative experience in Himachal. He will once again make a wonderful CM.”  Dhumal had led the party in the polls for the fifth time in succession and party president Amit Shah had announced at a poll rally about Dhumal’s leadership. At that time, the BJP’s decision was considered a setback for JP Nadda, who was then a key aspirant for the chief minister’s post. While Dhumal steered the party to victory, he himself lost from Sujanpur. The saffron party was clear that only an elected MLA would be considered for the top post and as such he lost in the race for CM’s post.

Dhumal enjoys clean image as even the Supreme Court has already quashed an FIR against BJP’s Hamirpur MP Anurag Thakur, his father, former Himachal Pradesh Chief Minister Prem Kumar Dhumal, and others in a case of alleged irregularities in granting land on lease for construction of a cricket stadium at Dharamsala. Thakur, Dhumal and the Himachal Pradesh Cricket Association (HPCA) had challenged the High Court’s April 25, 2014, order refusing to quash the FIR and stay the criminal trial before special judge, Dharamsala. The case was registered against them for alleged cheating, criminal conspiracy and corruption. Thakur, then the HPCA president, had contended that the case was actually a civil dispute but the then Virbhadra Singh-led Congress government made it a criminal case for political reasons. The FIR was registered by the Dharamsala office of the Vigilance Bureau on August 1, 2013, months after the Congress government assumed power in December 2012.

It is learnt that the party think tank is of the view that senior party leader and former chief minister, Prem Kumar Dhumal should be given more responsibility to steer the party to victory. The party top brass looked into the reasons for the losses suffered by the party in all the three assembly seats and lone Lok Sabha seat where elections were held recently.

How Dhumal would be entrusted with more responsibility ahead of 2022 Assembly elections in Himachal Pradesh is yet to be seen but the party understands his loyalty and connection at the grass-root level and he might be asked to head the campaign committee for Himachal Pradesh.  Already Chief Minister Jai Ram Thakur is seen cozying up to Dhumal and had met the latter at his residence at Sameerpur during an unscheduled meeting during the CM’s visit to Hamirpur. This is indicative of the fact that Dhumal may have some active role in the state politics and actually the former CM had already become active in Hamirpur after a meeting with state BJP in-charge Avinash Rai Khanna a few months ago. The national leadership feels the need of a mass leader like Dhumal and it is clear that the two-time former chief minister, a Masters in English and LLB and a former Lecturer would be entrusted with a bigger role in State politics ahead of the Assembly election in 2022.

(The views expressed are author’s own)