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How the BJP chose a chief minister

By Aditi Phadnis
January 08, 2018 12:23 IST
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When Nirmala Sitharaman and Narendra Tomar arrived in Shimla, they could not have anticipated the scene that awaited them.
Aditi Phadnis reports.

Prem Kumar Dhumal, right, congratulates Jairam Thakur who was chosen over him as Himachal Pradesh chief minister. Photograph: PTI Photo
IMAGE: Prem Kumar Dhumal, right, congratulates Jairam Thakur who was chosen over him as Himachal Pradesh chief minister. Photograph: PTI Photo

It was the Congress that used to face this dilemma.

In the 1970s and 1980s, an important reason for the rise of the N T Rama Rao-led Telugu Desam Party was that the Congress dispensation in New Delhi -- led at the time by Indira Gandhi -- shuffled and changed chief ministers at will with absolutely no regard for the legislators and the person they considered their leader.

NTR made this a cause célèbre. Under the Congress between 1978 and 1983, Indira Gandhi appointed and sacked five individuals as chief minister -- J Vengala Rao, M Chenna Reddy, T Anjaiah, Bhavanam Venkatram Reddy and K Vijayabhaskara Reddy. It was an assault on Telugu pride.


A somewhat similar situation arose in the case of the Bharatiya Janata Party and the circumstances in which Jairam Thakur was appointed chief minister of Himachal Pradesh.

Consider the facts. Nine days before the poll, party chief Amit Shah announced that Prem Kumar Dhumal would be the chief minister of the state if (and not when) the party came to power.

From available accounts, Shah did not do this in good grace because Dhumal mounted a multi-pronged campaign that involved influential central ministers, his son and Member of Parliament from Hamirpur, Anurag Thakur, and others, virtually pressuring the party president to name him the party's CM candidate.

A contributory factor was that Dhumal has an excellent equation with Prime Minister Narendra D Modi -- the two go back to the days in 1997-1998 when Modi was the party in-charge of Himachal.

It was under Dhumal as CM and Atal Bihari Vajpayee as PM that Himachal added to its excellent roads infrastructure.

In his public meetings, Modi endorsed the choice and said that Dhumal, 73, would make a 'wonderful' CM though others in the party said he would be replaced midway because it was 2019 the party was looking at.

Then the unthinkable happened. Dhumal lost the election.

Actually, closer analysis shows that not only did Hamirpur show the lowest ever turnout (indicating low enthusiasm for the election), but also the Congress wrested several seats in the area earlier held by the BJP.

From the BJP's point of view, it was a bad show.

If Dhumal was out of the race, who was to become the CM? Was he out of the race?

Dhumal's supporters cited precedents: Hadn't Arun Jaitley become a minister though he had lost the Lok Sabha election from Punjab?

Two BJP leaders, Nirmala Sitharaman and Narendra Tomar, were dispatched as observers to sense the mind of the legislature party. They could not have anticipated the scene.

While Dhumal supporters shouted 'Himachal ka neta kaisa ho, Prem Kumar Dhumal jaisa ho' and 'Sara Himachal dol raha hai, Dhumal Dhumal bol raha hai', Thakur supporters countered with 'Hamara neta kaisa ho, Jai Ram Thakur jaisa ho, and 'Jairamji ko jai shri ram.'

The less original was: 'Narendra Modi zindabad, Jai Ram Thakur zindabad' bracketing Modi with Thakur.

The Sitharaman-Tomar duo went to the RSS office to consult with the senior leadership. Veterans say this has never been done before.

They held consultations with senior BJP leaders like Shanta Kumar.

They also talked to senior MLAs together and separately.

Finally, the party said the name would be announced in Delhi.

In the meantime, Shah reportedly telephoned Dhumal and asked him to issue a press release declaring he was not in the race.

What followed was a protracted negotiation over the council of ministers.

Rajeev Bindal, one of Dhumal's closest supporters, was named speaker, largely, to get him out of the way.

Then, a judicious analysis of the regions the BJP had won.

Mandi, for instance, used to go the Congress way. This time, the BJP had won Mandi.

Kangra accounts for the largest number of seats in the assembly.

The largest complement of ministers was from Kangra and Mandi.

For the first time, Hamirpur has no representation in the council of ministers.

The final list of names was finalised at 2 am.

Another minister Kishan Kapoor's name was added 15 minutes before the list went to Raj Bhavan.

Those who know Jairam Thakur say he is the perfect choice for the BJP, notwithstanding the bitterness that preceded his selection.

He is from the Sangh's student wing, the Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad, has humble beginnings and has been MLA five times.

Thakur has many governance challenges before him. But one thing is clear. He will be the BJP's face in Himachal for the foreseeable future.

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Aditi Phadnis
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