Shimla, Dec 19 After creating massive support for the BJP but not able to save his face, the saffron brigade is now looking for alternatives to replace septuagenarian Prem Kumar Dhumal, who suffered an abject defeat in the Himachal Pradesh assembly polls.
Political observers say though elections were held under the leadership of two-time Chief Minister Dhumal, his humiliating defeat with a slender margin by his former protege has put paid to his chances of returning to the helm in the state.
A day after the BJP wrested power from the Congress, winning close to two-thirds majority with 44 seats in its kitty in the 68-member assembly, the race is once again open for the chief ministerial post.
The top contenders are Union Health Minister J.P. Nadda, a Rajya Sabha member whose roots are in the hill state, five-time legislator Jairam Thakur and four-timer Suresh Bhardwaj.
Both Thakur and Bhardwaj have their feet firmly on the ground and are known for their clean image.
The former retained his seat from Seraj in Mandi district, while the latter won from Shimla.
"If the party high command wants to nominate someone for the top post without going into re-election, then the choice will be from among the elected legislators," a senior leader, privy to the party's affairs, told IANS.
"Since many of the senior legislators faced defeat this time, the obvious choice could be between Thakur and Bhardwaj," he added.
BJP state chief Satpal Satti faced a humiliating defeat, as did political heavyweights and former cabinet ministers Gulab Singh Thakur and Ravinder Ravi -- and firebrand young leader Randhir Sharma -- all confidants of Dhumal.
Former state Health Minister Rajeev Bindal retained his seat but controversies surrounded him throughout his stint in the previous Dhumal-led government.
A former Minister of Rural Development and Panchayati Raj, Thakur has strong links with the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) and is known for his proximity to Nadda and BLP President Amit Shah.
But then, political observers believe Nadda's growing clout in the Bharatiya Janata Party's (BJP) central leadership could pave the way for his chief ministership.
"More important, Nadda is a clean face of the BJP," a political observer told IANS.
Starting his political career in 1978 as a student leader of the Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad (ABVP), the students wing of the RSS, Nadda won his first assembly election from Bilaspur (Sadar) in Himachal in 1993.
In 1998, he again won from that seat and became the health minister. He lost the assembly elections in 2003, but won in 2007 and was appointed the forest minister.
However, Nadda was forced to resign midway in 2010 owing to differences between him and then Chief Minister Dhumal. Since then he is almost out of state politics.
Whether Prime Minister Narendra Modi would like to relieve the resourceful Nadda from the Centre is doubtful.
But then, the BJP has been known to choose the not so obvious man as the Chief Minister -- like happened in Haryana. In that case, a much lesser known name and RSS leader Ajay Jamwal could be the party's choice for the chief ministerial post.
Jamwal is the RSS pointsman for the northeast.
The BJP Parliamentary Board has deputed Union ministers Nirmala Sitharaman and Narendra Singh Tomar to talk to the elected legislators in Shimla and take a call on the Chief Minister.