There’s confusion and chaos in the BJP in Himachal Pradesh where it romped to power with a two-third majority four days ago in an assembly election that saw its chief ministerial candidate lose. Two observers of the BJP Parliamentary Board, Nirmala Sitharaman and Narendra Singh Tomar, and Mangal Pandey, party in-charge of the state, have returned to New Delhi from Shimla without announcing who will head the party government in the hill state.
Supporters of Prem Kumar Dhumal, the CM candidate who lost from Sujanpur after shifting from Hamirpur, are not prepared to give up their claim to power. Five-term MLA Jairam Thakur, on the other hand, has emerged front-runner for the post.
The name of Union Minister J P Nadda too has been doing the rounds. Other names that have come up include those of Suresh Bhardwaj, four-term Shimla MLA and former MP, and Rajeev Bindal, also a four-term MLA and a former minister. As the central emissaries landed at Hotel Peterhof in Shimla, supporters of rival camps raised slogans outside. There were chaotic scenes and police had to intervene to clear a passage for the observers.
While one group raised slogans in support of Dhumal, the other countered with slogans for Jairam Thakur. Both also raised slogans hailing Prime Minister Narendra Modi and the BJP. The supporters had come from Hamirpur and Mandi, the home districts of Dhumal and Jairam Thakur respectively.
Party sources said the leadership wanted an MLA elected as leader of the legislature party. “The top leaders have made it clear that there will not be any by-election after government formation, which clearly rules out the possibility of anyone other than an MLA as CM,” a senior party leader said, indicating that Dhumal and Nadda could be out of the race.
Sources in the BJP said the top leadership had “not appreciated muscle-flexing” by Dhumal and his supporters and were unhappy over this public display of factionalism — MLAs supporting Dhumal have been rooting for him despite his defeat.
One source in the party said Dhumal’s show of strength was in sharp contrast to the “studied silence” of Nadda, suggesting that he could not be ruled out if Dhumal supporters manage to stall any local leader for the top job. The central observers also met Bhardwaj, fuelling speculation.
Before leaving for Delhi, Tomar, one of the two party observers, told reporters: “Our central leadership will take a call once we return with the feedback.” Their return to Delhi without making an announcement only added to the confusion and drama.
The observers had called BJP MPs to the meeting venue but only three — Shanta Kumar, Ram Swaroop and Varinder Kashyap — turned up, leaving newly-elected MLAs fuming since they had not been called for consultations. “What was the purpose of sending a team to Shimla? If they didn’t have time for the MLAs and wanted to meet just the MPs, they could have done it in Delhi. A few of us went inside but returned only after an introductory meeting,” one of the BJP MLAs said.
After a meeting of the core group of the party Thursday night, the observers headed to the local RSS office Friday and then to the BJP office where they also met Dhumal, Jairam Thakur and state BJP president Satpal Satti before returning to Delhi.
BJP veteran Shanta Kumar was said to have told observers that the verdict was very clear and the new Chief Minister should be chosen from among the elected members, not the defeated. “We have 44 MLAs, give a chance to a new face,” he was quoted as having said.
Ram Swaroop Sharma, MP from Mandi, was said to have pushed the case of giving “Mandi a chance for leadership since nine of 10 seats have come to the BJP this time. It’s a historic win. Rest whatever the party decides will be accepted”. Shimla MP Varinder Kashyap was all for Dhumal, pointing to Lok Sabha polls in 2019.
When contacted, Dhumal said: “It’s up to the party to take a decision on the leadership. At least, I am not in the race. I did not stake any claim too,” he said, adding “people of Himachal Pradesh will surely get an honest, efficient, stable and performing government which will last 25 years”.
BJP in-charge for the state Mangal Pandey, a minister in Bihar, said: “The central observers have held talks with MLAs and senior leaders and taken their views. Now, a decision on the name of the new Chief Minister will be taken by the party high command on the basis of the ground report from Shimla which the team will submit today. Thereafter, a meeting of the MLAs will be convened to elect the leader.”