In a departure from what was increasingly becoming the norm in the BJP, party chief Amit Shah announced last week that Prem Kumar Dhumal will be its chief ministerial candidate in poll-bound Himachal Pradesh. Speaking at an election rally in Rajgarh, Sirmaur, Shah said the BJP is fighting elections in the country under the leadership of Prime Minister Narendra Modi and in Himachal Pradesh, under Dhumal’s leadership. Up until Shah spoke in favour of Dhumal, twice chief minister and presently the opposition leader in the state, the Himachal campaign had progressed without any leader being declared the party’s CM candidate. The BJP’s decision to project Dhumal, midway in the campaign, may have been influenced by its main rival in the state, the Congress, backing the present CM, Virbhadra Singh, for another term and mocking the BJP campaign as “bin dulhe ki baraat” (a marriage party without groom). Reports suggested that the absence of a CM face was creating confusion, and even divisions, among party cadres. Or it could be a reflection of a larger political reality.
Since the advent of Modi on the national stage, the BJP has fought assembly elections — and won most of them — without projecting chief ministerial candidates. The PM loomed large in all these state campaigns and his wide appeal made the need for a charismatic local leader to head the state government even post-poll seem irrelevant. The Himachal example, however, points to the irresistible federal push in the Indian polity even at a time when the BJP has been emphasising the winnability of a centralised model and strategy. Since the late 1980s, the forces of decentralisation and federalisation have been strong in the Indian polity. The decline of the Congress and the rise of regional parties has seen state leaders seize the opportunity to assert their distinctive presence and voice, leading to regional parties making their place on the national stage, and also regional leaders acquiring more prominence in national parties. The non-Congress, non-BJP third fronts of the 1980s and 90s pitch-forked many regional leaders to leadership roles in national politics — for example, Karnataka Chief Minister H.D. Deve Gowda was the United Front’s nominee to the prime minister’s office in 1996. While the Congress “high command” always had a tense relationship with assertive state leaders, the BJP projected its chief ministers as evidence of its more federal party structure. Some of these leaders, for instance, Uma Bharti, Kalyan Singh, B.S. Yeddyurappa, soon became independent enough to revolt against the party when denied office. However, the success of Modi as a national leader since 2014 seemed to turn the tide in the BJP towards a more centralised party structure.
The complexities of Indian polity are such that any trend soon throws up its own contradictions within, forcing political actors to course correct or be rendered less relevant. The leader-centric politics championed by Modi could arguably press home, rather than decrease, the demand for a regional face to complement, and even amplify, the central message. Shah’s words in Himachal about a dual leadership — Modi at the Centre and Dhumal in the region — may mirror the BJP acknowledgement of a new political imperative.