All is not well in the Bharatiya Janata Party in Himachal Pradesh. Workers, leaders and sympathisers know it but do not talk about it openly. The BJP puts up a united front on camera. But there’s no missing the frosty ties between two party leaders from the hill state who have now graduated to the central leadership.
The tension was palpable when union minister Anurag Thakur met BJP national president Jagat Prakash Nadda in Delhi in August. , Anurag had “called on” Nadda along with Himachal chief minister Jairam Thakur.
But ANI’s video footage of this meeting shows Anurag and Nadda standing metres apart, with seemingly no interaction. Jairam Thakur offers Nadda a bouquet, a traditional Himachali cap, and a shawl. Both share a side hug and shake hands. But Nadda does not even look at Anurag, who stands to the side, smiling.
And then there are other cracks that are harder to hide. Himachal Pradesh votes on November 12 for 68 seats. But in nearly a third of the state, local BJP leaders have raised the banner of rebellion. A handful of them are fighting as independents against BJP candidates in key seats. Six of them have been by the party.
According to BJP insiders and teams of rebel candidates Newslaundry spoke to, the rebellion on the ground is tied to the hostility within the high command.
Within the BJP in Himachal, Nadda and Anurag lead two camps. Most BJP leaders offered a ticket are supposedly close to Nadda, including chief minister Jairam Thakur. But a significant number of leaders who have been left out, and have been dubbed “rebels”, are loyalists of Thakur and his father, also former chief minister, Prem Kumar Dhumal.
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Derision and distrust
Nadda and Anurag’s differences went public in 2020. Addressing a rally in Kangra that November, the I&B minister went on a tirade. According to , Anurag, with the chief minister beside him, “blamed the state government for delay in transfer of land for the university that he identified as his ‘dream project’.”
The project in question was the Central University of Himachal Pradesh, or CUHP. “Hitting out at the bureaucrats for dragging their feet in completing the project allocated to the state 11 years ago during former CM Prem Kumar Dhumal’s tenure, he also suggested that the CM hold them accountable for it,” the report added.
Jairam was embarrassed. HT said the chief minister “felt the issue should not have been raised by Anurag Thakur on a public platform”.
Two days later, Nadda came to Jairam’s rescue. He praised the CM in a rally and, in what was seen by the as a retort to Anurag, said “one has to be patient” when it comes to development.
Nadda and Dhumal – a history
Meanwhile, Jairam and Nadda go way back. They began their careers in Himachal politics in the 1980s as members of the Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad, the student wing of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh. Nadda was born in Bihar and moved to Himachal in the early 1980s during his stint in the ABVP.
Anurag’s father Dhumal is older. In 1982, Dhumal, who credits Rajnath Singh for pushing him into politics, became the national vice-president of the Bharatiya Janata Yuva Morcha, the BJP’s youth wing. At the time, Nadda was secretary of the ABVP in Himachal.
When Dhumal won his first Lok Sabha seat in 1989, Nadda was BYJM in-charge for the general election that year.
BJP national president Jagat Prakash Nadda was first elected as MLA from Bilaspur in Himachal Pradesh.
Prem Kumar Dhumal was the BJP’s mainstay leader in Himachal for over two decades. Photo: Press Information Bureau.
Nadda got his first ticket from Himachal in 1993. He won his seat but the Congress garnered a majority. After five years as leader of the opposition, Nadda won again in 1998 and the BJP came to power. Dhumal was elected CM and Nadda got two ministries: health and family welfare, and parliamentary affairs.
In 2007, when the saffron party returned to power in the state, Nadda was given the forest, environment and science and technology portfolios.
“Factionalism in the BJP in Himachal Pradesh has traditionally been borne out of a generational shift,” a seasoned journalist in the state told Newslaundry. “It was Dhumal who first sidelined Shanta Kumar, who formed the first BJP government in the state in 1990. Between 2007 and 2012, it was Nadda and other leaders who had risen from the ABVP who challenged Dhumal’s command over the party.”
By 2010, differences between Dhumal and Nadda grew. “Dhumal felt threatened by Nadda and his pack of younger leaders,” a staffer in the chief minister’s office told Newslaundry. “He did not let Nadda’s ministry function properly. And ultimately, he pushed him out of the state and sent him to Delhi.”
To those we spoke to for this story, it was this event that led to the bad blood between the two politicians.
In Delhi, Nadda grew powerful. He became the national general secretary of the party in 2010. In 2012, he was elected to the Rajya Sabha. “Naturally, Nadda’s interference in Himachal from Delhi grew,” the journalist said. “But Dhumal held sway over the party in the state.”
Dhumal’s tenure saw the rise of his son, Anurag Thakur. In 2000, at 25, Thakur became the president of the Himachal Pradesh Cricket Association – the youngest ever to ascend to a state cricket board. In 2008, he was elected to the Lok Sabha from Hamirpur, a seat vacated by his father after he became CM.
Anurag Thakur, Dhumal’s son, is now minister of sports and information and broadcasting. Photo: I&B ministry.
Dhumal’s undoing in 2017
Since 1982, Himachal Pradesh has alternated between the Congress and the BJP. “Politics here is candidate-based, not cadre-based,” a reporter with a national news channel told Newslaundry. “Given the small population, people build relationships with their MLAs and vote on that basis.”
Nadda is from Bilaspur, Dhumal from Hamirpur. Since the 1990s, they have built their political careers from the lower Himalayas. In the assembly elections in 1998, 2003 and 2007, Dhumal contested from Hamirpur’s Bamsan constituency. He won all three times. In 2012, the seat was junked after delimitation and the CM contested from the Hamirpur assembly seat. He won by a margin of nearly 10,000 votes – a significant difference in the hill state – but the BJP lost its majority that year.
The blow came in 2017. With his son leading his election campaign, Dhumal was supposed to fight from the Hamirpur seat. But it was changed to Sujanpur at the last minute. A BJP MLA, on condition of anonymity, alleged that the change happened at Nadda’s behest. “And it was because of that change that Dhumalji lost,” the MLA said.
Dhumal had been projected as the CM face that year, but his electoral defeat was his undoing. His loss “made the choice of chief minister a tough ask for the BJP leadership”, as at the time. “Reports from Shimla suggest top contender Jai Ram Thakur even met Dhumal to seek his blessings. But Dhumal camp is adamant on a CM of its choice since Thakur is considered close to Nadda.”
Nadda ultimately prevailed and Jairam Thakur was declared chief minister. Seven years after he was ousted from Himachal, the BJP general secretary finally had an upper hand in the state’s saffron politics.
A rebellion takes shape
Mandi is a town that most outsiders miss. Mountain enthusiasts who board an evening bus from Delhi arrive here shortly after midnight, when the town is merely a concentration of dim lights on a mountain.
But Mandi is an important political centre in Himachal. Chief minister Jairam Thakur’s constituency Seraj falls in Mandi district. Its most coveted seat is Mandi Sadar, where two political families are slogging it out this year.
The BJP candidate is the incumbent MLA Anil Sharma, the in the state this election, who has had stints in the Congress too. His father, Pandit Sukh Ram, was equally swift to switch between the two parties, but was also the minister of communications and information technology in the Narsimha Rao government in the 1990s. Sharma’s son, Ashray, isn’t built any different – he quit the Congress in October and is now in the BJP.
The other family belongs to the Congress. Challenging Sharma this year is Champa Thakur whose father, Kaul Singh Thakur, lost only two of the 10 assembly elections he fought over five decades. He has been elected eight times from Darang constituency in Mandi district.
But when a public debate kicked off on November 6 in Mandi’s town square, it was another Sharma who hogged the limelight. Praveen Sharma, dressed in a white kurta and maroon jacket, is one of the BJP’s rebel candidates this election. (In fact, Champa Thakur and Anil Sharma did not turn up for the debate; they sent representatives.)
Praveen, who has been in the BJP for over two decades, is considered close to Dhumal, and once served as his media in-charge. In October, he resigned from the party. It’s easy to figure out why – he was expecting to get a BJP ticket. Unfortunately for Praveen, the ticket went to Anil Sharma.
Mandi is an important political centre in Himachal Pradesh.
Former BJP leader Praveen Sharma at the public debate in Mandi.
“He was first given a ticket in 2007, but the party took it away from him the next day,” Praveen’s aide told Newslaundry. “He did not get the ticket in 2012 or 2017.”
His ambitions thwarted, Praveen is now contesting as an independent from Mandi Sadar. During the public debate on the evening of November 6, he lashed out at not just the Congress but also his former party, calling its governance “incompetent” and its MLA “missing in action”. Going by the applause, he seemed popular with those listening.
But Praveen is just one of many candidates in Himachal who are close to Dhumal and Anurag but were denied tickets by Nadda. As a result, it has set them on the road to rebellion.
Naturally, Praveen’s camp pins the blame on Nadda. “Anil Sharma has been given the ticket because he has money,” alleged the aide. “Naddaji is well aware.”
Jairam Thakur is widely seen as an “accidental chief minister” in Himachal Pradesh, even by his own MLAs. In the past year, his chief secretary was changed and the new one , and Jairam’s appointment of an aide to the Himachal Pradesh Public Service Commission was . In August, Sukhwinder Singh Suku, the head of the Congress elections committee, Jairam as being “remote-controlled by Delhi”.
These perceptions make the chief minister’s office an anxious place. But in the run-up to the election, the primary concern of those close to the CM is not the Congress, but Anurag and his father.
“The rebellion by BJP leaders here is caused by the D-gang,” an aide to the CM told Newslaundry, referring to Dhumal. “Most of the BJP leaders who are now running against the party as independents are loyalists to Dhumal and Anurag. Whenever he has had an opportunity, Anurag has tried to subvert the CM in the state.”
According to the staffer from the CM’s office, most rebels in the hill state have a backstory. “The rebel in Sundernagar constituency, Abhishek Thakur, is the son of Roop Singh Thakur, who is close to Dhumalji,” they said. “In 2009, Roop Singh Thakur was Dhumal’s choice to become the Panchayati Raj minister. The high command, however, wanted Jairam Thakur, who was state BJP president, to take that ministry. Dhumal was reluctant because he saw Jairam as a threat. But the high command put pressure on the CM and Jairam took the portfolio.” Abhishek is now contesting as an independent.
In Sundernagar, the BJP candidate this year is Rakesh Jamwal, a second-generation Sangh leader who, according to the staffer, “is close to Nadda and the CM”.
Factionalism found another casualty in Colonel Inder Singh, the MLA from Sarkaghat, who won the seat in 2007, 2012 and 2017. “Colonel Inder Singh has not been given a ticket this time because he is close to Dhumal,” added the CM’s staffer. “It’s been given to Daleep Thakur, the local president of the BJP.”
In 2017, the colonel was touted to be the state’s education minister. But since Dhumal’s hopes of chief ministership were dashed, so were his. Despite no ticket this year, the colonel did not rebel. But he has shied away from campaigning for the BJP in his constituency.
The town of Sundernagar in Himachal Pradesh.
BJP workers campaign for Daleep Thakur in Sarkaghat.
The pattern repeats itself in several constituencies. In Kangra’s Fatehpur seat, BJP leader Kripal Parmar is fighting against his party. Parmar was sent to the Rajya Sabha during Dhumal’s tenure, and is considered close to the former CM. Parmar was purportedly told to drop his candidature by PM Modi himself. “Modiji, Naddaji has humiliated me for 15 years," of the phone call, and later refused to back down.
In Kinnaur constituency, Dhumal loyalist Tejwant Negi has rebelled and filed his nomination as an independent. In Nalagarh, another loyalist, KL Thakur, was denied a ticket. It was instead handed to Lakhwinder Rana, a Congress leader who recently defected to the BJP.
In Joginder Nagar, Anurag Thakur’s father-in-law, Gulab Singh Thakur, was denied a ticket too. MLA Prakash Rana, who fought against Gulab Singh as an independent in 2017, and later joined the BJP, is the party’s candidate.
There are, however, those who buck this trend. In Jwalamukhi constituency, Dhumal loyalist Ravinder Singh Ravi is contesting from the saffron party. In Bilaspur Sadar seat – Nadda’s political home – Subhash Sharma, who is considered close to the BJP chief, has been asked to sit out this time. He too has rebelled.
The sticky pitch in Sundernagar, Hamirpur
Twenty-five km outside Mandi, Sundernagar is a bustling suburb built around national highway 154. Here, Newslaundry met the campaign team of Abhishek Thakur, whose father, Roop Singh Thakur, was allegedly denied a ticket because he is close to Dhumal.
Thakur senior resigned from the party this October. His son, who is contesting as an independent, remains a part of the local Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, or the RSS.
Roop Singh’s former aide, who is now managing his son Abhishek’s campaign, said there’s another reason for the rift between Nadda and Dhumal.
“The politics of the state is dominated by Rajputs and Brahmins,” the aide said. “Traditionally, the state has always had a Thakur CM and a cabinet of Brahmins. The two communities vie for influence in the administration. Nadda is a Brahmin and Dhumal a Rajput.”
Roop Singh was a six-time MLA from Sundernagar . He alleged that tickets in this election were not given based on merit. “The problem is that tickets were distributed on the basis of who is mine and who is not,” he said. “That is why we have a rebellion in the party. Naddaji should have applied his brain better.”
But in the town’s BJP office, claims of factionalism are swiftly dismissed.
“Roop Singh has had his time in politics,” Hemprakash Sharma, the BJP general secretary in the constituency, told Newslaundry. “His son has no contribution to the party. Our candidate, Rakesh Jamwal, is from the ABVP and the fresh face of the party here.”
Former BJP MLA Roop Singh Thakur at his home in Sundernagar.
Hemprakash Sharma, the BJP general secretary in Sundernagar.
Fifty km away in Baldwara, a village that falls in the Sarkaghat constituency, party workers offer a different assessment.
“Everyone knows there is hostility between Nadda and Anurag Thakur and his father,” said a Sangh worker campaigning for the BJP candidate Daleep Thakur. “But it can’t be brought out in the open. From what we know, Nadda is not the one to subvert Anurag, but Anurag subverts Nadda. Colonel Inder Singh, who has been denied a ticket from here, is a good BJP worker. He built the party in this constituency.”
, Newslaundry had asked CM Jairam Thakur about rebel candidates raining on the BJP’s parade in the assembly election. He said it was a matter of worry for the party, but not a major one. “PM Modi is the face of the election. People want BJP in the nation and the state,” he said. “Our supporters, who believe in our ideology, will only vote for the BJP.”
Newslaundry also reached out to the offices of Anurag Thakur and JP Nadda for comment. This report will be updated if we receive a response.
In Hamirpur, BJP spokesperson Ankush Datta rubbished claims of factionalism in the saffron party in Himachal. “The BJP is united and all workers have come together for the double-engine government,” Datta said. “There is pro-incumbency in the state and since our party is coming back in power, ambitious workers cannot control themselves and are rebelling. But there is no fissure.”
This is a well-crafted missive for the media. Off-record, however, BJP workers deny that the party has pro-incumbency in stock.
“There is a good amount of anti-incumbency, at least in Hamirpur,” a party worker told Newslaundry shortly after PM Modi’s rally in the district on November 9. “We were expecting it to decline after the PM’s rally. It has come down but not as much as we wanted. Anything can happen.”
Update at 11.30 pm, Nov 12: This report stated that Dhumal was originally from Bihar and moved to Himachal in the early 1980s. It was Nadda who was born in Bihar and then moved to Himachal. This has been corrected.
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