The Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) clinched victory in Himachal Pradesh by a convincing two-thirds majority, winning 42 out of 68 seats.
But it lost the one seat that really mattered: Sujanpur constituency, where the party’s chief ministerial candidate Prem Kumar Dhumal was contesting against Congress’ Rajinder Rana.
The BJP doesn’t usually name its chief ministerial candidate before an election unless it’s the incumbent party. For instance, Trivendra Singh Rawat and Yogi Adityanath were named chief ministers of Uttarakhand and Uttar Pradesh only after the election results had been announced in favor of BJP. Even in Maharashtra, the party contested the Assembly elections in 2014 without naming Devendra Fadnavis as its chief minister candidate when polling took place.
But in Himachal, midway through the campaign, the party named Dhumal as its face. It also convinced the 73-year-old to give up his traditional Hamirpur seat in favor of Sujanpur. It was a decision that would ultimately cost Dhumal his job.
With Dhumal no longer in the reckoning, the party is looking at alternative chief ministerial candidates. Union ministers Nirmala Sitharaman and Narendra Singh Tomar, who are BJP’s central observers, reached Shimla on Thursday to hold consultations with newly elected party MLAs to elicit their views and arrive at a consensus on the name of a new chief minister.
Here are all the names in the reckoning:
Jairam Thakur: Five-time MLA Jairam Thakur is being seen as a frontrunner to land the Himachal Pradesh chief minister’s job, according to indications.
A senior party leader said Thakur has “suitable credentials” for the post as he has been a member of Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad (ABVP), the student wing affiliated to BJP’s ideological mentor Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS). He also said that Thakur has been BJP state unit chief, a state minister and has been elected to the Assembly five times.
Another factor in his favour is that the party will not need to go through a by-election if he is chosen. Thakur had won from Seraj constituency by defeating Chet Ram of Congress.
According to a report in The Indian Express, Thakur is seen as a “gentle face” of the party in Himachal, and barring a bypoll in 2014, when he lost to Congress’ Pratibha Singh (wife of incumbent chief minister Virbhadra Singh), he has won every Assembly election that he has contested.
JP Nadda: The Union health minister wields considerable clout in the hill state. Nadda, a sitting MP, was said to be an early frontrunner for the post of chief minister after Dhumal’s defeat, but The Indian Express report quoted sources as saying that the party was inclined towards choosing an elected candidate, a view advocated by senior party leader and former chief minister Shanta Kumar, during his visit to New Delhi on Wednesday.
If the party does choose Nadda to become the next Himachal Pradesh chief minister, one of the elected MLAs would have to vacate their seat for him to contest a by-election. It’s a prospect the party wants to avoid.
What also works against his favour is the caste equation. Nadda is a Brahmin, and the community isn’t as numerically significant as the Rajputs. The last Brahmin chief minister of Himachal Pradesh was Shanta Kumar, incidentally. The last two BJP chief ministers, Rawat and Adityanath, have also been Rajputs.
On the other hand, as reported by Hindustan Times, Nadda has been a Union minister in the Narendra Modi government and his proximity to the top rung of BJP leadership will give him an edge.
Prem Kumar Dhumal: Dhumal, though lost the Sujanpur seat, may still get elected as chief minister. He would need to contest an election within six months of taking charge, and one of the sitting BJP MLAs would need to vacate their seats for him to do so.
There is also no shortage of candidates willing to sacrifice their seats for Dhumal’s sake. Virender Kanwar, who won from Kutlehar seat, has offered to resign. A report on PTI said that the clamour for making Dhumal the chief minister has gained momentum and three BJP MLAs have reportedly offered to vacate their seats for him.
He may be given a chance, especially considering Sujanpur was never his preferred choice. He had won the previous election from Hamirpur and had reportedly wanted to contest from the same constituency again, but was asked by the party’s central leadership to move to Sujanpur. The man he lost to, Rajinder Rana, was Dhumal’s former “election manager” and knows his family well. The margin of defeat was also a slender 1,919 votes.
What doesn’t work in Dhumal’s favour, however, is the party’s reluctance to have bypolls.
The other names in the list, according to the Hindustan Times report, are Mohinder Singh, who won for the seventh time; five-term legislator Rajiv Bindal; Krishan Kapoor, who was elected for a fourth time; and former state BJP chief Suresh Bharadwaj, one of the founding leaders of BJP in Himachal Pradesh. Bharadwaj started his career as an RSS member before joining the party’s student wing, the ABVP.