In Himachal, a septuagenarian vs an octogenarian fight for the hot seat

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Shimla: Two months ago, during the last session of the outgoing state assembly, former BJP Chief Minister Prem Kumar Dhumal launched a scathing attack against Chief Minister Virbhadra Singh for being “corrupt” and running a ‘mafia raj’, and demanded that he resign on moral grounds.
Virbhadra was unprovoked. Counseling Dhumal to cool down, he told the leader of the Opposition that the way BJP was treating him in the run-up to the polls, it was he (Virbhadra) who would turn out to be of greater help.
It certainly has turned out that way. Virbhadra Singh seems to have virtually forced the BJP to declare Dhumal as its Chief Ministerial candidate for the November 9 assembly polls in Himachal Pradesh. After the Congress declared him, the octogenarian veteran, as its Chief Ministerial face, the BJP was under tremendous pressure to clear the air on the leadership.
With barely a week to go before the polls, BJP president Amit Shah finally announced ithe party’s decision at Rajgarh, the (SC) reserved Pacchad constituency which the BJP won in 2012 defeating a seven-time MLA Gangu Ram. The BJP, it said, had decided to shower its affections upon Dhumal, he said.
The appointment was a significant departure from the BJP’s strategy so far in Uttar Pradesh, Uttarakhand, Haryana and Maharashtra. Moreover, the speculation that the 56-year-old, much younger Union health minister J P Nadda would be the next face of the party in the state was laid to rest.
The story of Himachal Pradesh politics is clear : The septuagenarian will fight the octogenarian. Out with the young, in with the old.
Several other names had certainly come up as the BJP drew up its list, including Ajay Jamwal, a BJP leader currently working in the North-East; Jairam Ram Thakur and Satpal Satti, former and incumbent state BJP presidents, whose proximity to Nadda was a factor in case he was not chosen. But none of them were deemed to have state-wide penetration among castes, regions and communities as well as employees and pensioners — who are biggest opinion makers in the polls .
Dhumal, on the other hand, has consistently ranked in Number One place in surveys the BJP and RSS were constantly getting done. Yet the party was reluctant to name him, until Virbhadra arm-twisted the Congress to nominate him. Once that happened, the Congress was perceived to have stolen a march over BJP, and its Mission-50 Plus in the 68-member House suddenly began to look shaky. The GST and demonetization issues were also turning the heat on Modi making it a Virbhadra V/s Modi battle.
A two-time Chief Minister, Dhumal, 73, has been the face of the party on the ground fighting Virbhadra Singh, the Congress’s only mass leader in the State. Dhumal belongs to Hamirpur district but is contesting from Sujanpur. He is the son of an ex-servicemen and started his career as a LIC clerk and later took up teaching in Jalandhar.
After his return, Virbhadra Singh, though himself caught up in CBI, ED and Income Tax cases, slapped nearly 12 FIRs against Dhumal and his son Anurag Thakur, who is also the BJP MP in the Himachal Pradesh Cricket Association.
Inside the assembly, Dhumal, led the party’s attack against Virbhadra. Outside, the hundred-odd rallies plan against ‘mafia raj’ and corruption ,which he started at Bilaspur were a big draw. This was followed by a ‘Parivartan rath’ yatra, the brainchild of BJP incharge Mangal Pandey, now a Bihar cabinet minister .
But still the BJP high command held back from naming Dhumal. Except for Nadda, the speculation goes, and he was himself in the race, no one in the party’s state leadership thought this was wise. The BJP high command realised this after Virbhadra mocked BJP for being a ‘bin dulhe ki baraat’ and directly challenged Modi.
Certainly, Dhumal’s announcement has put the Congress on the backfoot, as charges of corruption against the chief minister once again take centre-stage. It has given the BJP a boost, as posters and campaign material in his name appear all over the state.
The Congress is being forced to step-up its offensive. Rahul Gandhi will address three poll meetings although Sonia Gandhi ‘s rallies have been cancelled because of indifferent health.
Dhumal is not entirely without baggage. In the 2012 poll, his BJP government faced corruption charges. Congress’s slogan of ‘Himachal on sale’, particularly land purchase deals by outsiders, had led even the BJP’s rank-and-file to turn against him. Maheshwar Singh, a senior BJP leader, even quit the party, formed his own and contested the poll against the BJP. Meanwhile, senior BJP leader Shanta Kumar too was not happy with the Dhumal style of functioning, and that really queered BJP’s re-election pitch.
Certainly, there’s never a dull day in Himachal politics. Even if Dhumal wins the state, the question is if the BJP will set aside its retirement rule at 75 years for him, when he turns this old in only two years. And if and when that happens, will Dhumal be succeeded by J P Nadda?
Does this mean, then, that Dhumal is merely keeping the seat warm for Nadda? And that the BJP is cunningly using its senior most leader and most effective card to wrest the state from the Congress and then hand it over after a decent time-lapse?
As Himachal goes to the polls, the questions never cease.

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