DAYS BEFORE the state goes to the polls, BJP president Amit Shah on Tuesday declared Prem Kumar Dhumal as the party’s chief ministerial candidate in Himachal Pradesh. Announcing the decision at a rally in Rajgarh, in Pachhad constituency, Shah said: “Let’s make it clear to Virbhadra Singh, who is asking under whose leadership the BJP is fighting the polls. I will make it clear today. The BJP is fighting elections in the country under Prime Minister Narendra Modi. And in Himachal Pradesh, the BJP is fighting the elections under Prem Kumar Dhumal’s leadership. He is our face for the polls. Dhumalji is a former chief minister and Leader of the Opposition. But after December 18, when the votes are counted, he will be the chief minister.”
The crowd responded with “Modiji ko Jai Shri Ram, Dhumalji ko Jai Shri Ram.”
Shah’s announcement surprised many in the party as the BJP, till Saturday, was not clear if it would declare a chief ministerial candidate for the November 9 elections to the 68-member Himachal Pradesh Assembly. In the last few elections, including those in Uttar Pradesh, Uttarakhand, Haryana and Maharashtra, the BJP refrained from declaring a chief ministerial candidate.
In fact, even on Saturday, during Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Diwali Milan for mediapersons, a senior leader said: “The elected MLAs would choose the chief minister,” hinting that the party was unlikely to declare a name.
Dhumal is just two years short of 75 — the age limit the party has set for those holding ministerial posts. Although the party has cited the age factor while dropping some ministers who crossed 75, it has also decided that 74-year-old B S Yeddyurappa will lead the party campaign in Karnataka, scheduled to go to polls in early 2018.
While the BJP’s usual practice is to announce its chief ministerial candidate after a meeting of its parliamentary board, in the run-up to the Goa assembly elections last year, Shah had indicated that then Union Minister Manohar Parrikar could return to the state.
According to party sources, Dhumal, a two-time chief minister, was picked over Union Minister J P Nadda, another party stalwart from Bilaspur, due to his popularity and acceptability among the cadre. While a section of party leaders backed Nadda, most of the state leaders are learnt to have supported Dhumal at a meeting held in Shimla on Monday evening. “The leadership was under pressure to announce his name. After all, winning the election is most important,” said a senior party leader.
BJP sources said two recent surveys conducted by the party also indicated that Dhumal would be the best choice, with 70 to 75 per cent of the respondents supporting him.
Party insiders said Shah’s decision to announce Dhumal’s name came after feedback from the cadre that uncertainty over the leadership issue may affect the party, especially since the Congress has already declared Virbhadra Singh as its chief ministerial candidate.
The feedback was that if Dhumal was not declared chief ministerial candidate, the BJP would not be able to achieve its target of a landslide win — 50-plus seats.
Following the party meeting in Shimla on Monday, Shah is learnt to have spoken to Prime Minister Narendra Modi. Dhumal, who had left to campaign in Hamirpur, was also called for the meeting to review poll strategy.
“In the absence of Dhumal, Shah informed senior leaders and poll managers that he would be making the announcement at one of his poll rallies on Tuesday,” said a party leader. Sources said Shah chose Rajgarh as it has a considerable population of Thakurs — Dhumal is a Thakur.
Among those present on the dais today were Shimla MP Virender Kashyap and Pachhad MLA Suresh Kashyap.
Dhumal was campaigning in Jawalamukhi when the announcement was made. “I am thankful to the party leadership, especially Prime Minister Narendra Modi and BJP national president Amit Shah, who found me suitable to be given the responsibility to lead the party. The BJP has a target of 50-plus, but going by the public response we will finish at 60-plus seats,” said Dhumal, who is contesting from Sujanpur.
“With Dhumalji leading the campaign, and counting on his mass base and experience, the BJP will achieve its 60-plus target,” said Mohinder Dharmani, the party’s media department head. Dhumal, also a four-time MP, is credited with having expanded the party’s base in the state after the Shanta Kumar government was dismissed in 1992.