Thakur emerged as the frontrunner for the chief minister's post after Prem Kumar Dhumal, whom the BJP had projected earlier, suffered a shock defeat.
The BJP has also been known to choose not-so-obvious candidates as chief minister in some other states.
Mr Dhumal, a two-time chief minister who belongs to a farmer family, lost from Sujanpur to friend-turned-foe Rajinder Rana though his party won a decisive victory in the hill state.
There were speculations that union minister Smriti Irani could be sent to Gujarat as Chief Minister as she represented the Rajya Sabha from the state. Both Thakur and Bhardwaj have their feet firmly on the ground and are known for their clean image.
Jai Ram Thakur won from the Seraj constituency in Mandi District, beating the Congress candidate by a margin of about 11,000 votes. "Since numerous senior legislators faced defeat this time, the obvious choice could be between Thakur and Bhardwaj", he added.
"Thakur so far is clearly the front-runner but we have seen how the party leaders (read Prime Minister Narendra Modi and party chief Amit Shah) have sprung surprises in Haryana, Maharashtra and Uttar Pradesh by picking outsiders instead of representatives from the dominant community", a BJP insider said. Riding a wave of anti-incumbency against Congress, BJP won 44 of the 68 seats in the assembly and even increased its vote share substantially, from 38.7% in 2012 to 48.7% in 2017, making the loss of its top leaders even more shocking. He had served as a minister for rural development and panchayati raj in the previous BJP government in Himachal Pradesh.
"The central leadership will take a call". "More important, Nadda is a clean face of the BJP", a political observer told IANS.
Assembly elections in Himachal Pradesh on Monday threw up the most unexpected result.
However, his wish to become chief minister for a third time was not fulfilled by the voters of Sujanpur Assembly constituency. Dhumal is a two-term chief minister and held office in 1998- 2003 and 2008-12. Crucially, he did not rule himself out of the race for the Chief Minister's post.
A soldier's son, Dhumal started his political career as an Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad (ABVP) activist and then rose to the rank of Bharatiya Janata Yuva Morcha (BJYM) vice-president in 1982.
Sources said Thakur was a front-runner because of his proximity to the RSS and also Union minister J.P. Nadda, who has been eyeing the chief minister's chair for long but may have to sit out eventually.
Union ministers Nirmala Sitharaman and Narendra Singh Tomar are central observers for Himachal Pradesh.