The Bharatiya Janata Party, on Monday, added yet another state to its kitty by winning the Assembly election in Himachal Pradesh. This takes the number of states where it has a chief minister to 14. The BJP is in government in five other states as well, where a coalition partner from the National Democratic Alliance occupies the post of chief minister.

Yet, even as the BJP added another chief minister to its already burgeoning list, who exactly that person will be in Himachal Pradesh remains unclear. The party chief ministerial candidate Prem Kumar Dhumal lost his seat to a Congress contender Rajinder Rana in Sujanpur leaving the field wide open for the BJP high command to pick another face.

Congress falters

Himachal Pradesh is one of the smallest states in India, with a population of 69 lakh – making it smaller than many large districts in other states. The state, as a result, has only 68 seats in its Assembly with any party getting 35 seats or above controlling the house. The BJP has notched up an impressive win in the state, looking set to win two-thirds of the seats in the Assembly. Other than the Congress, the third party in the fray is the Communist Party of India (Marxist), that won the Theog constituency with a margin of 24,791 votes.

Anti-incumbency is a major factor in the state in every election. As a result, since 1990, the BJP and the Congress have swapped office with neat precision at every election. This poll was no different with the Congress’ Chief Minister Virbhadra Singh now having to vacate office for a yet-to-be-named BJP candidate.

The anti-incumbency factor was made more acute as a result of sharp divisions within the Congress ranks. The factions led by Chief Minister Virbhadra Singh and the Himachal Pradesh Congress chief Sukhwinder Singh Sukhu had fought bitterly in the lead up to the election. Singh has wanted Sukhu removed from the post of state party chief in order to get his supporters tickets for the elections. It needed an intervention by Rahul Gandhi to sort the matter out. As a compromise, Virbhadra Singh was declared the Congress candidate for chief minister while Sukhu was allowed to continue on as state party chief.

The Congress’ projection of Singh as chief minister would not have helped it much in the campaign. Eighty three year-old Singh faces cases of corruption against him – specifically a charge of amassing assets disproportionate to his income as well as money laundering. This was made into a sharp election issue by the BJP.

BJP chief minister?

While the BJP is basking in the glow of its victory, it still faces an immediate issue: choosing a chief minister. The party’s chief ministerial candidate was shifted from his incumbent MLA seat, Hamirpur, to fight from Sujanpur. The move was not a success. Dhumal lost in Sujanpur.

Dhumal’s name was declared rather late in the campaign as the BJP’s chief ministerial face. Under attack from the Congress, the BJP made the announcement just nine days before polling.

Dhumal’s loss, though, might be good news for Union Health Minister and Rajya Sabha member from Himachal Pradesh, JP Nadda, who is now frontrunner for the chief minister’s post. Nadda, though, is at a disadvantage due to his caste. He is a Brahmin in a state where nearly 28% of the population is Thakur. The name of state party leader Jai Ram Thakur is also said to be in contention.

The Modi-Shah duumvirate has sprung surprises earlier in states where the BJP had won with significant margins. In Haryana in 2014, ML Khattar from the Punjabi Khatri caste was made chief minister ignoring the state’s powerful Jats. And in Maharashtra, Devendra Fadnavis, a Brahmin was made chief minister, slighting the Maratha lobby.