Jai Ram Thakur, 53, may have become chief minister of Himachal Pradesh through a sudden twist of fate after the BJP’s CM candidate in the 2017 polls, Prem Kumar Dhumal (74), lost his election. But it has not been a sudden rise for this low-profile and diligent politician from a humble background, who hails from a remote village in Mandi district.
A consecutive five-time MLA, former minister and former state BJP chief, Thakur has made it to the coveted chair step by step since his student days, with what he calls a ‘settled psyche’ without any urge to ‘manipulate’.
Representing the new era in Himachal, Thakur has displayed capacity to solve problems in the first six months of his rule in the state. In an interview to ARCHANA PHULL and SANJEEV KUMAR, he spoke about the challenges of being a first-time CM. Excerpts:
Q: Was it an unexpected development that you became chief minister?
A: The party high command’s strategy was not to declare the CM candidate before the polls in 2017. However, with much provocation coming from the Congress side, which propagated that BJP was a ‘bina dulhey ki baraat’, the party announced that it would fight elections under Dhumal’s leadership towards the last leg of the campaign.
The very next day, BJP president Amit Shah addressed a meeting in my constituency and told people that I will be given a big role. He dropped a hint that I may be number two after Dhumal, may be Deputy CM. So, there was no confusion about my elevation in BJP after Dhumal lost.
Q: Why do you think the high command picked you for the big role?
A: My priority was to win the election. I have always concentrated on the work, small or big, whatever the party high command has assigned to me. I am a person of settled psyche and I work in a settled atmosphere. Manipulation for positions is not my behaviour. I am a silent worker, with a lot of conviction.
Q: What has your experience been in the first six months of rule in Himachal?
A: I had to face many exams in this period. That’s necessary also. It was an opportunity to learn and there were challenges too. After government formation, we reflected on our vision and new initiatives in the budget session.
The session was completed smoothly and the party’s internal feedback was positive about it. The next big challenge was the Kasauli firing during the demolition drive, which claimed two lives. It was unfortunate, but we acted promptly. The accused was arrested in a day and we took other measures too.
Then came the worst water crisis in Shimla. It wasn’t unexpected, but it doesn’t occur on this scale every year. Because of a dry spell, the water availability dropped from 34-35 million litres per day (MLD) to 19 MLD. I took the lead and personally monitored it day to day to check availability, distribution, till the situation normalised. Some people tried to make it a political issue, but they failed.
Q: The opposition has pointed fingers at your ‘inexperience’ as CM?
A: It is easy to comment when you don’t have anything to speak on issues. It does not affect me. I have a clear focus. Immediately after taking over, I went to Delhi and took up state issues forcefully with senior leaders.
It has never happened in the past that in five months, the state has got Rs 4,365 crore sanctioned from the Centre under various schemes.
Q: The CLP leader says you spend too much time on WhatsApp?
A: It’s not for chatting as they are trying to convey. I utilise my time for feedback and monitoring through WhatsApp. I am part of various groups with bureaucrats, officials, party leaders and workers and have my own way of communication 24X7 for quick results. I don’t wait to reach office to make phone calls or call officers.
Q: How about the bureaucracy, which has remained politically divided in Himachal?
A: It is true that bureaucrats are calculative in their working. For many years, they were associated with two big names (former CMs Virbhadra Singh and Prem Kumar Dhumal). My elevation surprised them. It was not reflected in the beginning. I feel the bureaucrats should work honestly with balanced behaviour. I have tried to make changes in the system and I think I have been able to increase my grip on bureaucracy with time.
Q: How is this ‘new era’ under your leadership different in Himachal?
A: We are positive in approach and have changed the work culture. A particular system existed in Himachal for many years. A change in government meant targeting opponents.
But we are focussing on the state’s development and are looking at success stories of other states, which Himachal can replicate. I am staying in touch with people on the ground and have visited 45 Assembly segments out of 68. The central government and BJP leadership are strongly backing us.
Q: Is tourism development your priority in Himachal?
A: Yes. For the first time, a government has set aside Rs 50 crore in the budget for developing new tourist destinations in Himachal. The previous government paid only lip service about the heli-taxi proposal.
But, in another first, we have spared state choppers for the heli-taxi service between Shimla-Chandigarh twice a week. We may increase the frequency to thrice a week. The flights are full. There are other projects too.
Q: Dhumal’s hard luck became your good luck? How does this affect your functioning?
A: There is no problem. We work collectively. Everyone knows that I did not lobby for the position. Nobody can allege that I was given a chance by overstepping others. The party high command has decided to develop new leadership in times to come.
Q: How do you see the 2019 Lok Sabha polls in Himachal?
A: I accept it as a challenge. We won all the four seats in 2014 in the Modi wave, while in the Opposition. I feel Narendra Modi is still the most acceptable Prime Minister in Himachal. We will retain our hold in 2019 also.
Q: Do you think your simplicity is being misunderstood?
A: Simplicity is an asset for me. It can’t be taken as my weakness. I take decisions cautiously and am capable of taking big and harsh decisions. I take everyone along, but if someone thinks ‘I can be taken for granted’, he is mistaken.