On Wednesday, Chief Minister Jai Ram Thakur paid a surprise visit to Karsog constituency in his home district Mandi. While such visits may be common during polls, the purpose of Thakur’s visit was different. The CM’s services had been sought to establish peace with the previous BJP MLA from the seat, Yuvraj Kapoor, who has filed his nomination as a rebel after being denied the ticket from Karsog.
Kapoor has been dropped in favour of Deep Raj, an “outsider” according to the Kapoor camp. After his peace call, Thakur claimed things had been sorted. However, not many are convinced, and are waiting for October 29, the last day of withdrawal of nominations.
Karsog is just one of the many constituencies where the BJP, otherwise known for its strict cadre code and discipline, finds itself facing angry leaders and threats of rebellion. One of the main reasons is the decision to drop 11 sitting MLAs and field new faces. Among the biggest surprise omissions was former CM Prem Kumar Dhumal, possibly drawing the curtain on his long innings in the state.
On Thursday, BJP national president J P Nadda held an emergency meeting in Shimla with all the top state leaders, including Jai Ram Thakur, former state in-charge Mangal Pandey and state chief Suresh Kashyap. Many of the leaders left campaigning to be present for the talks.
Mandal organisations and district units have complained that tickets have gone to “outsiders”, even as old-time workers have been ignored. At least 13 aggrieved leaders have filed nominations as Independents. In Dharamshala mandal unit, hundreds of party workers have resigned from posts in protest against the denial of ticket to Vipin Neharia. In Kullu, erstwhile ruler Maheshwar Singh was denied a ticket at the last minute over his son contesting as an Independent.
On Thursday, a helicopter brought Maheshwar from Kullu for the meeting held in Shimla, and after separate one-on-one chats with Nadda and Jai Ram Thakur, he announced that at 73, he did not want to take the party on. However, he added, “if my supporters still insist, only then will I contest as an Independent”.
The party has maintained that decisions regarding tickets were taken after internal feedback and surveys. However, sources admitted that the troubles in Himachal were “much more” than just “some rebels”. And that despite intense attempts by Nadda and Union minister Anurag Thakur, both of who belong to Himachal, there has been little success so far in pacifying the rebels.
Given the small size of several constituencies in the state, with less than a lakh voters, any small division of votes can make a big difference.
With both Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Home Minister Amit Shah caught up in preparations for the Gujarat elections – where the party’s stakes are higher – Himachal has been largely left to Nadda and Anurag Thakur. For Nadda, who is expected to get a year’s extension as party president, as the 2024 Lok Sabha polls are seen as too near for a change, the stakes could not be higher.
The situation is serious enough for the BJP to have issued an ultimatum that there would be no “ghar wapsi” for at least six years for those who choose to fight as Independents against the party’s chosen candidates.
While the Congress is also facing discontent in the ranks, the damage has been contained because several of its unhappy leaders quit much earlier – unlike the BJP where the troubles started after the ticket distribution – and because it has largely retained its sitting MLAs.
BJP leaders admit that what is exacerbating the tensions are question marks over Jai Ram Thakur’s leadership. A last-minute choice after Dhumal, the CM face of the BJP, lost his seat in the 2017 Assembly elections, Thakur is popular among the public but has little command over the party organisation.
Thakur’s position has been further undermined by the BJP’s clear reliance on Prime Minister Narendra Modi in the election – hoping to thus beat anti-incumbency and Himachal’s trend of changing the government every five years. A BJP leader said: “The party’s problems are compounded due to the anti-incumbency, and a section falling out with the CM. The rebels also know that the government is fighting issues like unemployment and inflation.”
While there was demand for a change of guard, especially after the BJP lost all four bypolls in the state in November 2021, sources said the party could not find the right replacement at the time. And now it is too late. “The BJP did not want to create a situation like Uttarakhand,” a leader said, hinting at the change of CM thrice in the last one year before Assembly elections in the state. An office-bearer said the BJP did not believe in changing leadership at the last minute when seeking a re-election. “It’s like saying we do not have faith in our own governance record.”
The BJP is pitching Himachal as Modi’s “second home”, as he had spent several years in the state, and listing the benefits of a “double engine sarkar”, if the BJP continued in power both in the state and at the Centre. The CM doesn’t even feature in many election posters of the BJP, where Modi dominates.
The Opposition has been attacking the BJP over this, saying it is fighting elections on issues which do not concern the state. However, the BJP believes that Modi’s popularity, which has not seen a dent, will override this. “Once the PM starts campaigning in Himachal, we will be able to cover the gap. We had a similar situation in Uttarakhand, but the PM’s image and the popularity of the Central government’s welfare initiatives helped,” a BJP leader said.
Asked about the BJP’s internal problems at a recent press conference, its election co-incharge Devendra Rana expressed confidence, while talking about “multi-level feedback” and “360-degree analyses”. “There is no favouritism… If you do proper research into how the election management and due diligence were done by the BJP, it will be clear that it is the most professional in the world.”
with inputs from Om Prakash Thakur, Shimla