Why you should care
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 43-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.
On Dec. 18, Thakur’s northern Indian state of Himachal Pradesh will count votes for the Nov. 9 elections to its legislature. In itself, the state of 7 million is tiny by Indian standards. But these are the first state polls the world’s largest democracy has held since Prime Minister Narendra Modi introduced reforms this past summer that simplified India’s tax regime but hurt millions of small traders. What some are calling a micro-referendum on Modi’s economic policies is also 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.
Thakur’s father, Prem Kumar Dhumal, 73, has twice served as the state’s chief minister — equivalent to a U.S. governor. Modi’s Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party, or BJP, has named Dhumal its chief ministerial candidate, if they win. But considering that more than 60 percent of India’s population is under the age of 35, and the BJP bars members over age 75 from office, the son is seen as a crucial contender for the state’s top seat when his father vacates it midterm, if the party wins. 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 the state 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 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 in early November, Thakur promised a cheering Hamirpur crowd that if voted back to power in the state, the BJP would “reverse” the policies of the incumbent Indian National Congress. “We will make Himachal Pradesh India’s top state again,” he said.
That’s 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, 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 recent 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 helped Hamirpur secure the promise of an engineering college and a medical school from the federal government — blaming the state’s 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. If the opportunity for a repeat presents itself — this time for the chief minister’s post — he’ll be better prepared.