More than any other political leader, the Himachal Pradesh Assembly elections are a prestige battle for Bharatiya Janata Party national president Jagat Prakash Nadda. The entire BJP campaign in the state bears Nadda's imprint - be it in terms of tickets or election strategy, the showcasing of Nadda loyalist Jai Ram Thakur's leadership not to mention a large number of rallies by the BJP president.
Not just that, Nadda has attached special focus on remote polling booths and instructed party cadres to ensure maximum number of voters from such areas come out to vote. Then the Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad (ABVP) has been deployed to boost participation among the youth.
Then in Nadda's home district Bilaspur, his son Harish Nadda has been going door-to-door to campaign especially with rebels threatening the party in at least two seats in the district.
The buzz in Himachal Pradesh's political circles is that Nadda, wouldn't mind a stint at the CM's chair after his term as BJP president ends. But more on that later. First a look at a few key aspects of Nadda's approach in this election.
Shaking Up Established Leaders
Situated on the border with Punjab's Pathankot, the Nurpur seat in Kangra district is one of Himachal's twenty odd bellwether seats, alternating between the BJP and the Congress.
Barring one bypoll in 1996, since 1993 the seat has alternated between the Mahajan family of the Congress (Sat Mahajan and his son Ajay Mahajan) and Rakesh Pathania of the BJP. Pathania was minister for forests, sports and youth affairs in the outgoing cabinet and it was considered certain that he would be fielded once again.
But Nadda shifted Pathania to Fatehpur seat and replaced him with Ranbir Singh Nikka, a leader who the BJP district leadership had actually expelled earlier this year. Since his expulsion, Nikka had been attacking both Pathania and Ajay Mahajan and tried to project himself a disruptor against the two established leaders in the area. For a while the buzz in Nurpur after Nikka's expulsion was that he could join the Aam Aadmi Party.
By bringing him back in and fielding him from Nurpur, the BJP has tried to contain the anti-incumbency factor.
Rakesh Pathania, meanwhile, has been sent to fight a tougher seat against Bhawani Pathania, son of a former MLA Sujan Singh Pathania.
It is a gamble. The BJP could very well win both or lose both.
A similar experiment was done in Shimla district, where the BJP decided to shift four-term MLA from Shimla Urban Suresh Bhardwaj to a strong Congress seat Kasumpti. The Shimla Urban ticket has gone to the owner of the famous Sood tea stall in Shimla, Sanjay Sood, who hails from an RSS background.
Getting a leader like Bhardwaj to shift couldn't have been possible had it not been for Nadda.
The calculation is that Shimla Urban is a strong BJP seat and it is good optics to give it to a candidate with a fresh, non-political image. The BJP is quite confident of winning the seat. On the other hand, Bhardwaj with his political heft, could give the Congress a run for its money in Kasumpti.
Support for Jai Ram Thakur
The strategy in both Nurpur and Shimla Urban is actually the same - shake up the status quo, make established leaders work hard in tougher seats and bring in disruptors in seats following an established pattern.
In some ways, this is not very different from the strategy the BJP, has been following at the state level in Himachal Pradesh, largely due to Nadda.
Between 1977 and 2017, the chief ministers of Himachal Pradesh have come from just three districts - Shimla (Thakur Ram Lal and Virbhadra Singh), Hamirpur (Prem Kumar Dhumal) and Kangra (Shanta Kumar).
But Dhumal lost in 2017 even amidst a BJP sweep, some say due to BJP's internal issues. This gave the party a chance to try some thing new and change the status quo in Himachal politics. Enter Jai Ram Thakur. Nadda has been among Thakur's strongest backers in the BJP. Even after the BJP's loss in the bypolls last year, Nadda is said to have stressed on the need to persist with Thakur.
Both Nadda and Jai Ram Thakur come from an ABVP and Bharatiya Janata Yuva Morcha background. Thakur was Himachal Pradesh secretary of the BJYM when Nadda was the national president of the organisation.
One advantage of Thakur is that he hails from the crucial Mandi district, that accounts for 10 Assembly constituencies, second only to Kangra with 15 seats. In 2017, the BJP swept nine out of 10 seats in the district and an Independent won one, joining the BJP later.
Even now, Mandi district may end up deciding whether the BJP comes back to power or not, especially with the party expected to face some losses in its stronghold Kangra.
Thakur is also important for Nadda as he helps contain the Dhumal family. Former CM Prem Kumar Dhumal is not contesting the Assembly polls this time, citing age but his son and Union Minister Anurag Thakur is seen as a CM aspirant in the state.
There is a caste angle as well. Being a Thakur like the Dhumals, the current CM is an important counterweight to them. Himachal Pradesh has not seen a non-Thakur CM since Shanta Kumar in 1993.
The Risk for Nadda
Nadda's micromanagement of the election campaign hasn't been without hitches. For instance in Fatehpur, the seat where Nurpur MLA Rakesh Pathania was sent, Nadda's former classmate KrIpal Parmar is contesting as a rebel candidate.
Parmar's video of an alleged phone call with PM Modi went viral. In the call, Parmar can be heard saying that Nadda has been humiliating him since 15 years and that it was because of Nadda that news of his dissatisfaction didn't reach Modi. Now, no one from the BJP has confirmed that Parmar was indeed speaking to Modi but the former has claimed that the PM did call to ask him to withdraw.
Sources close to Parmar said that he remains deeply devoted to Modi but he didn't want to back down against what he feels is a "grave injustice" by Nadda.
Similarly in Nadda's own district Bilaspur, the BJP faces rebellion in the Bilaspur Sadar and Jhanduta seats. The Congress has actually done a better job of containing rebels in the district.
This is a high stakes election for Nadda. If the BJP loses, Jai Ram Thakur may be the fall guy but Nadda's clout in his home state may also take a hit. Anurag Thakur may end up becoming more dominant in the state unit. But if the BJP beats the state's history of voting out incumbents, it would no doubt be a personal victory for Nadda.
Though Jai Ram Thakur would in all probability continue as CM if the BJP wins, there is speculation that Nadda himself could get a chance after his tenue as BJP president ends.
It was supposed to end in January 2023 but it has been extended in light of the 2024 Lok Sabha elections and crucial state elections in 2023.
If that happens, he would be the first Brahmin CM of Himachal Pradesh since Shanta Kumar three decades ago.