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HindustanTimes Sat,20 Sep 2014

Acid test for Congress in BJP stronghold

Naresh K Thakur, Hindustan Times  Dharamsala, February 26, 2014
First Published: 00:11 IST(26/2/2014) | Last Updated: 00:16 IST(26/2/2014)

The Hamirpur parliamentary seat has been an old bastion of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), with the Dhumals ruling the roost in the past more than two decades.

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The name of former Himachal Pradesh chief minister Prem Kumar Dhumal did the rounds initially, but the BJP has finally reposed its faith in sitting MP and Dhumal’s son Anurag Thakur. The latter had won by a huge margin of more than 1.5 lakh votes in the 2008 byelection after the seat was vacated by Dhumal (who regained power in the 2007 assembly elections). Thakur retained the seat in 2009, but the victory margin dropped to around 73,000 votes.

The Congress, now in power in the state, is keen to make inroads into this politically significant segment. What makes this seat even more important for the ruling party is the fact that Thakur heads the controversial Himachal Pradesh Cricket Association (HPCA), which is facing the ire of the state government for alleged irregularities.

Initially, nine leaders were in the fray for Congress ticket from Hamirpur. The screening committee finalised three names former minister Ram Lal Thakur, Barsar MLA Inder Dutt Lakhanpal and BJP rebel Rajinder Rana.

One-time Dhumal protégé Rana had contested (and won) as an Independent from Sujanpur assembly constituency in 2012 after being denied the BJP ticket.

Chief minister Virbhadra Singh is backing Rana’s efforts to gain a strong foothold in the area. However, state Congress chief Sukhwinder Singh Sukhu is opposed to the candidature of Rana, whose name was said to be figuring in the Congress chargesheet against the previous BJP government. Sukhu wants that the candidate should be from the Congress, not a rebel from another party.

The infighting took an ugly turn when letters targeting Rana were circulated in Hamirpur and Bilaspur the day the screening committee discussed his name.

Ram Lal Thakur, a staunch Virbhadra supporter, has unsuccessfully contested the Lok Sabha elections twice. He lost to BJP’s Suresh Chandel in 2004 and was defeated by Dhumal in the 2007 byelection. In case the high command rejects Rana’s candidature, Ram Lal Thakur could be the party candidate.

The name of first-time MLA from Barsar and chief parliamentary secretary Inder Dutt Lakhanpal was also shortlisted for the final round, but he is apparently reluctant to contest.

The screening committee also discussed the name of industries minister Mukesh Agnihotri, but Virbhadra is not ready to spare him for the purpose. Agnihotri’s name was not recommended to the panel, though Sukhu favoured his candidature.

Rana has already started touring the constituency. If the state leadership reaches a consensus on his name and the high command gives the go-ahead, Hamirpur could witness a no-holds-barred clash between Rana and Anurag Thakur.

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