August 14, 2020
Having spent Two-and-half years in authority, Himachal Pradesh’s first-time Chief Minister Jai Ram Thakur has a task cut-out for the coming days. The revival of the state’s economy; mainly based on tourism, agriculture (horticulture included) and the industry is a major concern area. Also, side by side firming-up his leadership in the BJP (between two veterans- Shanta Kumar and Prem Kumar Dhumal) is like walking on the razor’s edge. Moreover With COVID deaths and the numbers rising exponentially every day, the maiden Chief Minister’s challenges are multi-fold.
To top it with BJP National President being J P Nadda, who has grown to the party’s top post from Himachal Pradesh, the 55-year Chief Minister remains under close watch, and his actions under scrutiny in Delhi as well as locally. His two recent decisions, one relating to much-delayed cabinet expansion to fill-in three vacancies of the ministers and this week’s Kangra tour have evoked some political debate. His bid to get a grip over the state and bureaucracy is still much under doubt.
The BJP senior Shanta Kumar‘s displeasure against him for hurriedly resuming official tours despite a ban on all political, social and religious gatherings, forced Thakur to make a hasty retreat in Kangra last week. But, Chief Minister’s Kangra visit had a hidden agenda too.
Just before the cabinet expansion, Kangra had witnessed a political storm within the party. Former minister Ramesh Dhawala, a sitting MLA from Jawalamukhi, had opened a direct front against party’s organizing secretary Pawan Rana. He accused Rana of openly interfering in his affairs and thus exceeding defined boundaries of his organizational job. Dhawala had gone to the extent of asking the party to divest Rana of his party charge and let him become an MLA.
Most MLAs from Kangra, including Rakesh Pathania, a young Rajput leader now inducted in the cabinet, came to the rescue of Rana. But Dhawala refused to budge. The crisis was about to spill over to the streets but for the Chief Minister inviting Dhawala and pacifying his heated tempers.
During Kangra tour, Dhawala and Rana shared the stage with Thakur apparently after backroom parleys. Now, having inducted Pathania, not Dhawla, an OBC leader from Kangra, Thakur ‘s ship is still not out from turbulent waters. Some MLAs, including seniors and a sitting Deputy Speaker, are sulking as being denied cabinet berths despite their merit. They include Ramesh Dhawala ,Narinder Bragta ,Col Inder Singh, Vikarm Jaryal and Deputy Speaker Hans Raj.
Act of balance
In his act of political balancing, Thakur inducted three new ministers in the cabinet. It is hard to believe that the ministers were of his choice. Somewhere it had J P Nadda’s way to bring his favorites from Kangra, Bilaspur ( his home district) and Sirmaur, to the government fold. Nevertheless, it’s more about the reshuffle, Thakur chose to affect in the portfolios of the ministers putting in place a few of the non-performing lot.
Some of his close confidants like Govind Thakur got shifted out of Forests and Transport portfolio while Bikram Thakur’s portfolio of Industries got supplemented with Transport. Education Minister Suresh Bhardwaj – Shimla MLA moved to the Urban and Housing earlier held by Sarveen Chaudhary much to her dismal performance. Tribal minister Dr Ram Lal Markanda lost agriculture to Virender Kanwar, Panchayati Raj minister.
The heavyweight minister Mohinder Singh has got the charge of revenue. An important portfolio yet laced with controversies relating to land sales that had prompted the Congress to coin slogans like ‘Himachal on sale ‘against the BJP during the second term of former CM Prem Kumar Dhumal in 2012.
Every non-Himachali buying land is required to seek the state government’s permission under section 118 of the HP Tenancy and Land Reforms Act.The revenue minister has sweeping powers to oversee such sanctions, allow or deny relaxations. The power also covers the land purchases by the Himachali agriculturist. A minister in the Jai Ram Thakur cabinet is already under clouts about recent land purchases in Kangra—state’s biggest district.
Wriggling–out of controversies
Thakur decided to shed this portfolio to wriggle self out of impending controversies. He earlier had landed-up in the soup with the health portfolio when the PPE kits purchase scam came to light in May 2020 forcing state BJP president Dr Rajeev Bindal to resign on “moral grounds”. The health portfolio was with Chief Minister.
The scam, involving a sitting Director Health Services Dr Ajay Gupta and a Chandigarh-based supplier ( known for his close connection with Dr Bindal)—both later arrested, was being investigated by the state Vigilance and Anti-corruption bureau. This has severely dented the government image but led to side-lining of Dr Bindal – whose Chief Ministerial ambitions recoiled on him only.
The health portfolio has now been allotted to Dr Rajeev Sejhal- a low profile minister but Chief Minister continues to retain a dozen portfolios, half of these quite bigger ones will be an added burden to run the show, balance politics and focus on the under-rating performance