The Bharatiya Janata Party’s decision not to project a chief ministerial candidate in next month’s Himachal Pradesh assembly polls has pushed the saffron party on the back foot though it is otherwise well-placed to dethrone the ruling Congress-led Virbhadra Singh government.

Union Health Minister JP Nadda and former Himachal Pradesh Chief Minister PK Dhumal are the chief contenders for the post. Having led the state in the past, Dhumal has a distinct edge over Nadda. He has a good image and enjoys support across the state. Unlike Dhumal, Nadda is not a mass leader but Prime Minister Narendra Modi and the BJP President Amit Shah have a soft corner for him.

Ambivalent attitude

Dhumal is said to be upset that the party leadership is hesitating to declare him the chief ministerial candidate. The BJP’s state unit fears the party’s ambivalent attitude could hurt its electoral prospects. This has been conveyed to the BJP’s central leadership, which is learnt to be studying the pros and cons of naming its chief ministerial candidate during Modi’s election meetings, slated for the last lap of the November 9 poll. There is a view in the state that the BJP must necessarily pick a local face as growing resentment over the Goods and Services Tax and the economic slowdown has hit the prime minister’s popularity. The state unit party can no longer depend on the Modi magic alone to get it past the finishing line.

BJP sources said a final view will be taken after Shah gets a first-hand account from the cadres during his forthcoming trip to Himachal Pradesh. “His decision will depend on his personal assessment on whether the party’s chances will be adversely impacted if they do not name a chief ministerial candidate,” said a senior BJP leader. The party had taken a deliberate decision against projecting anyone as it fears this could lead to infighting before the election, the BJP leader said. “If we name one – Dhumal or Nadda – then the other leader’s workers will not just stop working but could even sabotage the election,” he added.

Confusion among candidates

While privately admitting that Dhumal is a strong and popular candidate, BJP leaders said the party had chosen not to name him as it did not want to give the impression that it was favoring the Thakurs at the expense of other communities. “We already have Thakur chief ministers in Uttar Pradesh, Chhattisgarh and Uttarakhand,” explained a senior BJP leader. “Even Vasundhara Raje can be considered a Thakur. If we ignore Nadda, we could end up upsetting the Brahmins who have always been loyal to the BJP,” said the leader.

The BJP president is said to be convinced that several factors are operating in the party’s favour. It has a well-oiled party organisation which has been working overtime to woo different castes and communities. Besides reaching out to the Dalits, the BJP has also targeted women based on the feedback that Prime Minister Narendra Modi holds a special appeal for them. Having a government at the Centre also helps as there is no shortage of funds while ministers are in a position to promise Central funds and projects to the state. Most importantly, the BJP is being viewed as an attractive alternative by the electorate because of the disenchantment with the ruling Virbhadara Singh government.

But the state unit maintains that despite these advantages, it is on a sticky wicket over the party’s decision not to project a chief ministerial candidate. Unable to offer any plausible explanation, BJP spokespersons are on the defensive each time they are questioned on this issue. In fact, this has become a chief talking point in the poll-bound state and is said to be having a negative impact on the BJP ‘s otherwise well-planned election campaign, resulting in considerable confusion among the candidates.

Virbhadra Singh. File photo.

Underdog Congress

Faced with a tough challenge, the Congress is naturally keeping a sharp eye on the internal developments in the BJP. It is hoping that Modi will not name a chief ministerial candidate as the building resentment in the Dhumal camp could then work to its advantage. Congress insiders maintained that if the message goes out that the BJP leadership prefers Nadda (a Brahmin), it would sharpen the Brahmin-Thakur divide and consolidate the Thakur vote in favour of Virbhadra Singh who is still considered the community’s tallest leader in spite of the corruption charges against him.

The uncertainty in the BJP has helped the Congress to retrieve lost ground as its position has improved marginally since the campaign got underway even though it has been hit by desertions and internal rebellion. There is no doubt that the Congress is the underdog in this election. Not only is the Virbhadra Singh government facing anti-incumbency, the Congress chief minister is also personally mired in corruption cases, the twin issues which the BJP never ceases to highlight in its ongoing poll campaign. Besides attacking Virbhadra Singh for heading an inept and inefficient government, the BJP has also stepped up its attack against Congress vice-president Rahul Gandhi who, it believes, is not particularly popular in Himachal Pradesh. However, Rahul Gandhi’s declaration that Virbhadra Singh will be the party’s chief ministerial candidate has worked to the advantage of the Congress as the sulking veteran leader is now campaigning enthusiastically for the party.

Electioneering in the hill-state has, so far, been a low-key affair. But it is expected to pick up momentum next week when the big stars from both the BJP and the Congress – Modi, Rahul Gandhi and perhaps Sonia Gandhi – will descend on the state to give the much-needed push to their respective parties before the campaign closes on November 7. Determined to wrest the state from the Congress, the BJP is expected to go all-out in the final stages to ensure that it succeeds in its mission. According to a Congress insider, though their party has picked up after trailing the BJP in the initial stages, the real picture will only emerge in the closing days of the campaign. “The coming days are crucial for both sides,” he underlined.