The BJP’s caste strategy in Himachal Pradesh | India Today Insight
On July 22, Himachal Pradesh chief minister Jai Ram Thakur was tested for Covid after the deputy secretary in his office tested positive for the virus. He was just about to begin his period of self-quarantine when he received word from the Bharatiya Janata Party leadership that his protégée Suresh Kashyap had been appointed as state unit chief. This is a major leg up for Kashyap, first time MP from Shimla, who mostly remains under the radar and doesn’t have much of an affiliation with other BJP factions led by former chief ministers Prem Kumar Dhumal and Shanta Kumar.
Around 33 per cent of the voters in the state are from the Rajput caste and around 18 per cent are Brahmins. Dalits make up 25.2 per cent of the state’s voting population. Kashyap is the first Dalit leader to lead the state unit dominated by Thakur and Brahmin leaders for years. Kashyap’s appointment will now give the chief minister a chance to work out different caste combinations in the state to increase the party’s base and to spin the Dalit narrative, which has mostly been negative. Thakur’s cabinet colleague Rajiv Saizal had said in an assembly speech in January that he was not allowed to enter a temple because of his caste. Later, in March, opposition Congress had staged a walkout over alleged discrimination against Dalits in Thakur’s home district, where a Dalit family was allegedly not allowed to conduct a religious programme at their house.
In fact, after the December 2017 polls, when the BJP’s chief ministerial candidate Prem Kumar Dhumal (also a Thakur) lost in the assembly poll, the party landed on Jai Ram, another Thakur, to lead. The situation within Congress is similar. Former chief minister Virbhadra Singh, a Congress leader who continues to be a dominating figure in the state politics, is a Thakur; and his rival, Anand Sharma, a Brahmin. The political pandits in the state often say, “there is a common political understanding that Rajput is a king and Brahmin is a king maker.”
For the BJP, though, Kashyap’s appointment is a big gamble.
Party veteran Shanta Kumar’s group was lobbying for Vipin Parmar, current speaker of the Himachal Legislative Assembly, to be selected for the post, while Dhumal’s group was pushing Rajya Sabha MP Indu Goswami. But Goswami doesn’t share a good equation with Thakur and Parmar is a Rajput himself. The combination didn’t work. Overruling all their suggestions, BJP national president J.P. Nadda (also from Himachal Pradesh), in mid-January, had picked Rajeev Bindal for the post, but within four months Bindal’s name featured in a personal protection equipment (PPE) kit bribery scandal and he was forced to resign, prompting the party to look at Kashyap. He received the approval of Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Home Minister Amit Shah.
Thakur’s reputation—which took a hit, albeit a small one, during the bribery scandal in May—is largely that of an honest administrator. But the challenge he now faces is to make this social engineering work. Thakur’s government is in the second half of its tenure and this new combination could determine whether he can repeat the mandate.
Since becoming chief minister in December 2017, Thakur has enjoyed much leeway from the BJP’s top leadership to run his government, but this is the first time his choice for a major organisational appointment was approved. With Kashyap in lead, the chief minister can hope tostrengthen his grip on the state unit. His next challenge, after coming out of quarantine, would be to quickly get the approval for a cabinet expansion plan without too many changes.
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