The assumed ascent of Prem Kumar Dhumal, the Bharatiya Janat Party’s (BJP) chief ministerial face in Himachal Pradesh, came crashing down on Monday when he was defeated from Sujanpur constituency even though his party came close to securing a two-thirds majority in the Himachal Pradesh assembly elections.
Dhumal, 73, a former chief minister, was defeated by his Congress rival and former confidant Rajinder Rana by a narrow margin of 3,500 votes. But the veteran BJP leader still wields considerable influence over the state, and it may be too early to write him off. Dhumal is largely seen in the small peace-loving hill state as the common man’s representative—quite unlike his political rival and outgoing Congress chief minister ‘Raja’ Virbhadra Singh, who came from an erstwhile kingdom.
The gentle, soft-spoken and humble man from the lower hills has risen from the ranks in the BJP and was expected to become its chief minister for the third time. He helmed the state earlier from March 1998 to March 2003, when he headed the BJP-Himachal Vikas Congress coalition government, and again from January 2008 to December 2012.
His supporters say Dhumal’s amiable nature and easy availability are his USP. An MA in English and a law graduate, he has been a three-time MP and a two-time leader of the opposition in the state assembly. Born into a non-political, farming family on 10 April 1944, in the Samirpur village of Hamirpur, the son of an ex- serviceman taught English in a private college before embracing politics.
His son, Anurag Thakur, who took over from him as BJP MP from Hamirpur, describes him as a simple man with a deep sense of commitment. “We look up to him for his dedication, hard work and commitment towards public life. As a child we felt we did not get enough time to spend with him in the family, but now feel proud that he has given his life for the service and welfare of the people of the state," Thakur told PTI.
Dhumal started his political career with the RSS’s students’ wing, the ABVP. He became vice president of the Bharatiya Janata Yuva Morcha, the BJP’s youth wing, in 1982. The BJP picked him as its candidate for the Hamirpur Lok Sabha constituency in 1984 after state stalwart Jagdev Chand declined to contest from there.
Dhumal lost the election, but won the seat in 1989 and 1991, before losing to Vikram Singh Katoch in 1996. After the death of Jagdev Chand in 1993, Dhumal became active in state politics. He was BJP president in the state in 1993 and became its chief minister in March 1998 when he won the Bamsan constituency by a margin of 18,000 votes.
Often referred to as “sadak wale mukhya mantri"—or the CM who built roads—Dhumal was known for ushering in development, building up infrastructure such as a road network, the lifeline of the hill state. Dhumal stepped down as an MLA in the Himachal Pradesh legislative assembly after winning the Hamirpur constituency in a 2007 Lok Sabha by-election, held after the expulsion of the BJP’s Suresh Chandel, who figured in the cash-for- questions scandal—a controversy about MPs being bribed for asking questions in Parliament.
In another by-election—this one in May 2008—Dhumal was replaced by his son, Thakur. Dhumal, who became Himachal’s chief minister for the second time in 2007, faced a stiff competition from younger leaders eyeing the CM’s chair. But the veteran leader emerged the frontrunner once again. In a break from tradition, BJP chief Amit Shah announced his name as the party’s chief ministerial candidate a few days after launching its campaign in October this year.
Dhumal, however, is two years away from the 75-year age limit fixed by the BJP top brass for retirement from active politics. The party clearly chose him because he fits into the state’s caste combination as is from the dominant Thakur community, comprising 28% of the electorate. While Dhumal is considered the strongman from the lower hills of Himachal, outgoing chief minister Singh is considered the strongman of the higher hills.
His other competitors for the top slot included Shanta Kumar, who is in his 80s, and J P Nadda. Nadda, a Union minister, is 57, but belongs to the Brahmin community which comprises only 18% of the electorate.
Dhumal and Virbhadra have been alternating as chief ministers for the last over two decades, as Himachal Pradesh has not broken since 1985 its tradition of electing the same government twice in a row. The Congress in the 2012 assembly elections won 36 seats with a 42.8% vote share while the BJP won 26 seats with a 38.4% vote share.