The Bharatiya Janata Party may be the clear front runner in the upcoming elections in Himachal Pradesh, but it still felt the need to make a major last-minute change to its campaign this week. With just eight days left for the assembly polls on October 9, the BJP announced that former chief minister PK Dhumal will be the party’s chief ministerial candidate. The saffron party is hoping this late change to its strategy will solidify the lead it appears to have built over the last few years, fuelled in part because of anti-incumbency against the current Congress government. But it also suggests that the BJP was concerned enough about an election that the rest of the country has mostly ignored as a sideshow while politicking in Gujarat hogs the headlines.
A number of reasons suggest that the BJP is in a prime position to win the hill state, whose results are not expected until December 18. Most see the election as similar to the neighbouring hill state of Uttarakhand earlier this year, when the BJP won 57 out of the 70 seats up for grabs. The Enforcement Directorate’s questioning of current Chief Minister Virbhadra Singh in a disproportionate assets case earlier this year also worked against the Congress-run government, which has found it hard to respond to accusations of being tainted by corruption.
Beyond those specific conditions, however, there is also the dint of history: Himachal Pradesh has swung back and forth between the BJP and the Congress for more than three decades now, with the incumbent government being voted out every time. Most indications suggest the same is likely to happen yet again.
With that in mind, the BJP’s decision to make a last-minute alteration has been put down to concerns that Dhumal and his supporters within the state unit would display their unhappiness if he were not declared the chief ministerial candidate. During the reign of Prime Minister Narendra Modi and party president Amit Shah, the BJP has mostly stuck to fighting campaigns without a chief ministerial face, preferring instead to wait until after the polls to name a leader.
But Dhumal, a Thakur leader who has been chief minister in the state twice before, made it clear to the party that he expected to be named its candidate. As is standard in hill-state elections, the party has had to try and strike a balance between the Rajput and Brahmin leadership in the state, with Union Health Minister JP Nadda being the other potential chief ministerial candidate. Over the last few weeks in particular, there were clear indications that Dhumal and other Thakur leaders were unhappy with the party’s approach, especially with the Congress putting forward a 82-year-old Virbhadra Singh, also from the Thakur community.
The naming of Dhumal as the chief ministerial candidate may still bring out some factionalism within the party, especially from the Brahmin section headed by former Chief Minister Shanta Kumar. The BJP could have simply avoided angering either side by not naming a candidate, but economic conditions – in particular distress due to the rollout of the Goods and Services Tax – and the Congress’ energetic election campaign in Gujarat have made the saffron party wary of banking solely on Modi’s name, even though it had propelled the BJP to a vote share of more than 50% in the 2014 Lok Sabha elections.
The effect of the Dhumal declaration will be amplified this week as campaigning goes into the final stretch, with Modi expected to make multiple visits to the state ahead of polling on November 9. Recent opinion polls were anyway heavily tilted towards the BJP, with both Axis and Lokniti-CSDS projecting more than 42 seats for the saffron party in the 68-seat assembly.
Anything that is not a comfortable victory would in fact be a surprise and a serious setback for the BJP. A thumping victory, however, would mostly matter only within the state, except for one significant achievement: Every Hindi-speaking state from Himachal through to Bihar – barring the city-state of Delhi , would then be in the BJP’s kitty.