The New Poster Boy for India’s Right Wing
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With age and lineage on his side, Thakur’s influence within the world’s largest democracy could be on the rise.
Anurag Thakur speaks purposefully to you one instant, then types out a text message the next, juggling multiple conversations with astonishing skill. The 44-year-old former cricketer is no stranger to multitasking. He has served as an Indian parliamentarian for a decade, while at times also governing cricket, a sport whose icons are worshipped in India at a level that hovers below God, barely. But now, the political stakes are higher than ever for Thakur.
In a few weeks, Thakur’s northern Indian state of Himachal Pradesh will vote to pick India’s next government. In itself, the state of 7 million is tiny by Indian standards. But the state has in recent years emerged as a reliable bastion of the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) that rules the country and that Thakur belongs to. The party won all four seats here in 2014, when Prime Minister Narendra Modi swept to power. This time, many experts are calling the elections a referendum on Modi’s economic policies, expecially a ban on high-value notes and reforms that have simplified the tax code but have hurt millions of small traders. But equally, these elections are a personal test for Thakur, one of the prime minister’s most prominent young lieutenants.
Thakur is no rabble-rouser, but he’s no bleeding heart liberal either.
The BJP had picked Thakur’s father, Prem Kumar Dhumal, 74, as its candidate for chief minister — equivalent to a U.S. governor – ahead of the Himachal Pradesh state elections in November 2017. But while the party won the elections, Dhumal – who has twice previously served as chief minister – lost his seat, and the party appointed another leader, Jai Ram Thakur in charge of the state. For Thakur, winning his seat in the coming parliamentary elections is critical to pitchfork the prominent political family legacy into the future. He has filled his father’s void before. After all, when Dhumal left the Hamirpur parliamentary seat in 2008 to take over as state chief minister, Thakur contested in his place and won, the first of three wins in a row.
Success in 2019 may also cement Thakur’s long-term national credentials at a time when India’s politics have taken a decisive turn to the right. Thakur is no rabble-rouser, but he’s no bleeding heart liberal either. In Parliament, when opposition leaders target Modi, it is often Thakur who responds with tart remarks. During the Himachal Pradesh campaign, he lent his weight to a claim by fringe BJP leaders that many Muslim men were marrying Hindu women to convert them to Islam. Thakur said this practice, which the BJP has coined “Love Jihad,” could compromise “national security.”
Sitting in his office a mile from the Indian Parliament, Thakur is intense — eyes focused, beard neatly trimmed — and his trim physique is a reminder of his days playing cricket for the state of Punjab, and then at the professional level for Himachal Pradesh. He doesn’t smile easily, flashing angry when the discussion shifts to the shortages ordinary Indians grapple with – from poor roads to inadequate health facilities and the absence of a grievance redressal mechanism beyond the ballot box.
But as a leader with his sights on the future, Thakur is also deeply conscious of his image. The frames decorating his office form a portrait of a young politician who’s of the people and comfortable with heads of government. In one photo, he’s seen talking to Modi, highlighting his proximity to a prime minister who’s known not to trust many people. In another, Thakur stands in the crowd at the 2011 Cricket World Cup, celebrating India’s victory over Australia, and a third snapshot shows him chatting with Bangladesh Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina.
On a cloudy Wednesday ahead of the Himachal Pradesh elections, Thakur promised a cheering Hamirpur crowd that the BJP ”will make Himachal Pradesh India’s top state again.”
Such comments are empty rhetoric, says Devinder Singh Rana of the Congress, who challenged Thakur in the 2014 parliamentary elections. Thakur, he says, had promised train connectivity to Hamirpur by 2015 — a promise that remains unfulfilled. “With him as a parliamentarian, even those projects that were announced for Hamirpur have stalled,” Rana tells OZY.
Thakur has also been dogged by controversy. In January 2017, he was forced to resign as chief of India’s cricket board after the country’s Supreme Court concluded that the sport’s administration had not done enough to clean it up, despite repeated scams. He apologized to the Supreme Court in July after being accused of perjury. That same month, Thakur also apologized to the speaker of the Indian Parliament, after he’d violated House rules by recording the proceedings on his mobile phone.
But some colleagues swear by his good character. For years, Thakur served as the chief of the BJP’s youth wing, and Harish Dwivedi, a parliamentarian from the state of Uttar Pradesh, worked under him. In a country where feudal norms still dominate, Dwivedi says Thakur never treated him as a subordinate. On a parliamentary trip to Bangalore, Dwivedi recalls fondly, Thakur took his rural colleague to a mall and introduced him to international cuisine he had never tasted.
Thakur says that as parliamentarian, he has helped Hamirpur secure the promise of an engineering college and a medical school from the federal government — blaming the state’s earlier Congress government for stalling progress on building these institutions — and he has launched a student mentorship program. In Himachal, Thakur says his top priority will be to deliver on basics: ensuring the state emerges as an education hub and providing clean drinking water to every house. In a country where only 20 percent of school graduates enroll in college and just 16 percent of the rural population has access to piped water, these promises resonate.
Through most of his father’s political rise and first stint as chief minister, from 1998 to 2003, Thakur was away from his state, in Punjab, where he ran a garment export firm. Distance from the limelight helped him, he says, and it’s something Thakur wants for his two sons, who study at a New Delhi school where most students are children of bureaucrats and professionals, not politicians.
Come 2008, though, Thakur was a greenhorn when he decided to run for the seat vacated by his father in Parliament. A decade later, he’s ready to step out of his father’s shoes, as the BJP’s great youth hope.
(This story has been updated form when it was originally published on December 7, 2017.)