Who will be the next Chief Minister of Himachal Pradesh? This is the most common question on everybody’s lips. If the Congress party somehow manages to win in the coming assembly elections, Virbhadra Singh will undoubtedly be capped for the seventh time as chief minister of the state. This, irrespective of what happens in the cases under process in Delhi courts. The election will be fought under his direction and leadership. It is generally agreed that otherwise the party will have no chance at all.

However, the pattern over the last three decades shows that power alternates between the Congress party and BJP. The advantage, accordingly, lies in favour of BJP in the elections this year. This is one of the main reasons for BJP brimming with confidence.

Only some sudden and unpredictable developments between now and November can tilt the scales. As of now, BJP seems to enjoy an advantage. Some of its leaders claim that the party will bag about 60 out of the total 68 Assembly seats. Some make a cautious estimate of around 50.

In 2007 elections that BJP won, Prem Kumar Dhumal was projected as the chief ministerial candidate thwarting the hopes of Shanta Kumar’s followers. But this time so far the party leadership has been maintaining that the chief minister will be elected after the elections. It may be so, going by the experience in Uttar Pradesh, Uttarakhand, Haryana and Goa.

Going by the same experience, many party workers are speculating that a completely new face may crop up for the top gaddi. Who will it be? Is that the reason why the party is not projecting a known face in the state politics?

The factor loaded against the two-times chief minister Dhumal is the age limit of 75 years imposed by Prime Minister Narendra Modi for occupying such posts. Dhumal will have only a little over two years’ tenure if he is allowed to head the government. But if someone else is projected as the CM candidate before the elections, the chances of the party coming to power may dip.

No doubt the Modi factor will play a big role ~ but it’s also a fact that its influence is getting weaker by the day. Most Himachalis still have a strong emotional connect with former Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee, whose annual vacations at his residence in Prinni (close to Manali) and his informal, charming interactions with the people won many admirers in the state – irrespective of party affiliations. He is also perceived as a great benefactor to the state.

In contrast, Modi who during his Lok Sabha poll campaigns in the state vigorously promised, “Mujhey char kamal do, main Himachal ko Gujarat jaisey bana dunga” (give me four seats and I will make Himachal as developed as Gujarat) – has failed to impress the public here after becoming the Prime Minister.

Despite efforts by the local leaders, common people are hardly convinced that the state got enough from the Centre. It’s mainly so because their expectations were raised sky-high by the oratorical skills of Modi. And, after all, they had given BJP all the four Lok Sabha seats he asked for.

The BJP is still likely to win — but the Modi factor may not work wonders in the state as expected by the local leaders. The BJP defeat in neighbouring Punjab and the people’s somewhat waning confidence in the acts and performances of the governments in Uttar Pradesh, Haryana and Uttarakhand cannot be ignored.

JP Nadda, Union Health Minister hailing from Himachal, is the other contender with a strong party background, and right equations with the Prime Minister and Amit Shah. Whether Modi would like to release this resourceful man from the Centre is doubtful. Projecting him now as a candidate for the top post may not go down well with the supporters of Dhumal.

Also being debated in whispers in party circles here is his acceptability by voters “across the state”. Besides, his image during his tenures as the Health and Forest Minister in the Dhumal cabinets seem to have not gone down well (rightly or wrongly) with the people.

He is charming, very well mannered, very helpful, but his image as a person who does not pursue his promises and leaves them to his officials has become an impediment. His immense potential, even some of his party associates whisper, has never really flowered.

A much less known name and a man who comes from the RSS ranks — Ajay Jamwal — reportedly close to Mr Modi, is doing the rounds. Obviously projecting his name for the top post before the polls may be detrimental. Is it one of the reasons why the party leadership has chosen to be non-committal on this issue?