Virbhadra Singh, who has put in five terms as Chief Minister, has already told Congress Vice President Rahul Gandhi that one of his preconditions for leading the campaign will be Junior inheriting his seat Shimla (rural). His son has formally submitted his application for the ticket from the constituency; Virbhadra Singh will run from another place.
Now, the BJP. Union minister JP Nadda is a Rajya Sabha MP from Himachal who hopes to run his home state and spends most weekends there. He is a particular favourite of Modi and a close confidant of Shah and is making it clear that he is no pushover and will not concede an inch to Prem Singh Dhumal, who has served twice as Chief Minister. Nadda has told Shah that at age 73, Dhumal just two years short off the BJP's cut-off for retirement.
His son, Anurag Thakur, the Hermes-wearing three-term member of parliament from Hamirpur, is not finding the going so easy while trying to make dynasty bloom in his party. Prime Minister Narendra Modi and BJP president Amit Shah are "dynasty allergic" and see red at the proffering of "family credentials", says a senior BJP leader privy to the on-going Dhumal-Nadda tussle for leadership.
Anurag Thakur, known for his networking skills across political parties, is close to Finance Minister Arun Jaitley. He was disappointed when he was not even made a junior minister in the last Cabinet reshuffle early in September; he has reportedly told close aides that he expected to be made a minister with independent charge and crowds and banners had been prepared to welcome the "son of Himachal".
JP Nadda, who spends virtually half the week in Shimla, is a keen contender and is avidly working with Amit Shah on the Himachal campaign where the BJP is clear that it has a real chance to remove Virbhadra Singh who is beleaguered by anti-incumbency after 5 terms, infighting within the Congress, and corruption cases against him and his family. Virbhadra Singh is feuding with the state chief Sukhwinder Sukhu who he wanted removed, and senior leader Sushil Kumar Shinde who has been placed in charge of Himachal by the central Congress leadership. The Sukhu camp, upset at Virbhadra Singh's push for his son, has told the Gandhis that drastic measures are needed to retain Himachal.
Rahul Gandhi has just agreed to Virbhadra Singh's non-negotiable demand to be named the presumptive Chief Minister. "Gandhi does not get along with Singh but this was an announcement under compulsion. He is the sitting Chief Minister and our tallest leader. And Gandhi can hardly take a stand against dynasty, can he, with his own anointment as Congress President at the end of this month," said a senior Congress leader.
Anurag Thakur is managing his father's campaign, importing an event manager from Mumbai who also did events for the IPL and reaching out to his film star friends to campaign for the BJP. But it's still not clear if Shah and Modi will make his father the BJP's Chief Ministerial candidate.
JP Nadda is pleading is case with both his bosses and the all-important Nagpur constituency - the RSS - which is learnt to be "not opposed" to his candidature. The RSS is not very comfortable with the flamboyant Anurag Thakur and what is seen as his lavish life style, quite apart from the dynastic angle which the larger Sangh Parivaar frowns on. But as families gather strength, the convenient workaround found by the Sangh is that only one person in a family will be allowed to occupy a major post. Contradictions to this putative rule allegedly make the Sangh uncomfortable - examples such as Vasundhara Raje Scindia, Rajasthan Chief Minister, and her son Dushyant Singh, who is an MP; union minister Maneka Gandhi and her parliamentarian son, Varun Gandhi; union home minister Rajnath Singh and his son Pankaj Singh, an MLA in Uttar Pradesh.
Virbhadra Singh's son, Vikramaditya, has in some ways an easier induction process in the Congress with its family-friendly approach. But he will have to prove himself and his political skills; Anurag Thakur's campaign management and networking skills will repeatedly be brought up as a comparison.
Amit Shah knows he is in a comfortable position in Himachal based on a series of in-house surveys - three in the last three months - which forecast a comfortable comeback for the BJP. This means he is in a commanding position to pick his Chief Ministerial contenders. Modi and Shah love springing political surprises such as the selection of ML Khattar in Haryana and Devendra Fadnavis in Maharashtra.
So will it be dynasty versus dynasty in Himachal or will Nadda walk away with the crown? Himachal may be overshadowed by the election in Gujarat, but it will offer an exciting, unpredictable ride.
(Swati Chaturvedi is an author and a journalist who has worked with The Indian Express, The Statesman and The Hindustan Times.)
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