Two-time Chief Minister and BJP veteran Prem Kumar Dhumal, who has contested many Assembly and parliamentary elections, was keen to avenge his 2017 poll defeat at the hands of his one-time protege Rajinder Singh Rana of the Congress by entering the fray again for the November 12 Assembly polls.
His desire was dashed with the party’s parliamentary Board meeting, presided over by Prime Minister Narendra Modi, on Tuesday night dropped his nomination from any of his two stronghold seats — Sujanpur and its adjoining Hamirpur.
The first list that was made public on Wednesday cleared 62 out of 68 candidates with Chief Minister Jai Ram Thakur to contest from Seraj, Anil Sharma from Mandi and former state unit chief Satpal Singh Satti from Una.
“Will contest if the party asks me, ” Dhumal, 78, the father of Union Minister of Information and Broadcasting Anurag Thakur, was often quoted as saying before the announcement of the list.
As the party registered a handsome win in a House of 68, the party’s chief ministerial candidate Dhumal faced defeat in a straight contest by 1, 919 votes in Sujanpur, the seat in his home district of Hamirpur, where he was asked to contest from despite his reluctance as his former ‘poll manager’ and sitting Independent legislator Rana was in the fray on a Congress ticket.
The BJP leaders close to Dhumal admitted that the former chief minister, who played a crucial role for two decades in strengthening the party after the exit of Shanta Kumar, the first non-Congress chief minister in 1977, has been dropped from this election owing to his advancing age.
But they say the voters are emotionally attached to him after his defeat.
“Dhumal was keen to say goodbye to the party honourably, rather than with the blot of defeat on his face. His contribution to the party is unparalleled. He should be given an opportunity to re-enter the fray as he has been active in Sujanpur despite his elderly age, ” a senior BJP leader told IANS on the condition of anonymity.
Even Dhumal had conveyed to the party central leadership about his desire to enter the fray.
In the last Assembly poll, party insiders say, Dhumal was upset over the party shifting him from his Hamirpur bastion to adjoining Sujanpur. Also just a few days before the polls, the BJP declared him the party’s face for the polls.
Often referred to as “sadak wale mukhya mantri” or the Chief Minister who is credited with building roads, Dhumal helmed the state from 1998 to 2003 and from 2008 to 2012.
In 2017, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) defeated the Congress Party and won 44 seats out of the 68 seats while the Congress won only 21 seats.
In a double whammy to the Dhumal family, another party leader Gulab Singh Thakur, father-in-law of Anurag Thakur, was dropped this time. He too lost his last election.
“In politics one faces a defeat while another faces a win. It will be a failure on our part not to be able to give justice to the people (of Sujanpur). It’s time for introspection, ” an emotional Dhumal had said after being defeated by a slender margin of 1, 919 votes.
In political circles, Dhumal’s sudden aggressive posture and participation in political activities were also seen in the backdrop of the deliberate sidelining of his close aides Ravinder Kumar Ravi and Gulab Singh Thakur.
As the silent rebels within the BJP continue to prick, the task also appears to be uphill for the main rival Congress, which is largely banking on a trend to sweep the polls as both the Congress and the BJP ruled the state alternatively from 1985.
Political observers say though the ruling BJP, which believes that the forthcoming Assembly polls is a semi-final ahead of the final of the 2024 parliamentary polls, has somehow managed an edge over its seemingly ‘faction-ridden’ rival by signalling about its chief ministerial candidate well ahead of the Assembly polls.
The Congress is still a “divided house” in the absence of a mass leader like the late Virbhadra Singh, who had devoted over 50 years to the common man, and banking largely on the charisma of Priyanka Gandhi Vadra as his brother Rahul Gandhi is undertaking Bharat Jodo Yatra.
The state ruling BJP’s first list of candidates has surprise seat changes of senior legislators, and dropping of 11 lawmakers.
Seats of two Cabinet ministers — Suresh Bhardwaj and Rakesh Pathania — have been changed, while their colleague Mohinder Thakur dropped.
Five women candidates figure in the list, while 11 Scheduled Caste and eight Scheduled Tribe candidates have got the party’s nomination to enter the fray.
Sensing a threat from the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) after its emphatic win in neighbouring Punjab, BJP chief J.P. Nadda, who has his roots in Himachal Pradesh, in April announced that the party will not replace Chief Minister Jai Ram Thakur and the Assembly elections will be contested under his leadership.
But a strong anti-incumbency wave against the ruling BJP is evident from the loss of three Assembly seats and one parliamentary seat in the October 2021 bypolls.
Political observers told IANS that the BJP has managed an edge over its seemingly somnolent rival Congress by already launching a statewide campaign with back-to-back public meetings by Prime Minister Narendra Modi and party’s national leadership comprising Nadda and Anurag Thakur.
Congress leader Priyanka Gandhi Vadra last week formally launched the party’s election campaign from Solan town.
The fledgling Aam Aadmi Party (AAP), it seems, is attempting to conquer the state with an army without a general.
But as the Assembly elections draw closer, AAP’s momentum in the state, where it is yet to field a credible mass face, has been slowing down with the top leadership focusing on strengthening its vote bank in poll-bound Gujarat.
Politically, a bright spot for the AAP at this point of time is the Communist Party of India-Marxist (CPI-M) announcement to extend support to the party on the seats it is not contesting. The CPI-M has a lone legislator in the Assembly.
The Congress is also dithering over the Chief Ministerial face in the absence of its stalwart and six-time Chief Minister Virbhadra Singh.
With the passing away of Virbhadra Singh, who literally ‘ruled’ the political landscape single-handedly for almost six decades, the somnolent Congress seems fractured and divided in his absence. No other leader enjoys the mass appeal and popularity that he had.
Political observers believe that the BJP, which is facing anti-incumbency, has somehow managed an edge over its rival Congress by dropping 11 lawmakers and one Cabinet minister Mohinder Thakur, whose son Rajat Thakur has been given nomination from his stronghold Dharampur in Mandi district.
While Chief Minister and five-time lawmaker Thakur has already carried out a whirlwind tour of the state ahead of the announcement of polls, the Congress is banking on its Central top leadership.
Jai Ram Thakur will be contesting from his stronghold Seraj.
Congress state senior leaders — Mukesh Agnihotri, Sukhvinder Sukhu, Harsh Vardhan, Sudhir Sharma and Asha Kumari — are concentrating on their respective seats only.
Two Congress turncoat legislators — Pawan Kajal and Lakhwinder Rana — have got the BJP nomination from their respective seats — Kangra and Nalagarh, respectively.
The ballots will be counted on December 8.