Assembly Elections 2017: Uttarakhand

The Doon Spool

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It’s advantage BJP and a rudderless Congress has no counter-argument

IT IS 9.30 IN the morning of January 23rd at Bijapur Guest House in Dehradun, the official residence of Uttarakhand Chief Minister Harish Rawat. Half of it still functions as the state- run lodge it once was, except that the security protocol is of an entirely different order now. In the building’s porch, the Chief Minister is in conversation with a group of people. Some of them have been denied Congress party tickets for the Assembly polls due on February 15th, and Rawat is trying to console them. “There are only 70 seats in the state and not everyone would get a party ticket, but if you stay with me and support me, I will take care of you,” he assures one of the party leaders. Of another, he makes a request with folded hands. “This is the last chance for Congress to be in power here,” he tells him, “If BJP wins, we will never be able to recover. Keep this in mind when you go into the field.”

That fear is not unfounded. The past year or so has seen vast numbers of the state’s Congress leaders switch over to the BJP. The desertions shook up the Rawat government and left it scrambling for support. Just a week ago, a senior state leader and Dalit face of the party, Yashpal Arya, joined the rival party even after the Congress gave him a ticket. Arya wanted a seat for his son to contest, too, but the party’s one-family-one-ticket formula for the polls meant that his demand was turned down. “Whosoever is denied a ticket starts hobnobbing with the rival camp,” says Rawat, “There is no party loyalty nowadays.”

That’s perhaps one of the reasons that both contenders for power wait for each other to announce their list of candidates before publishing their own, holding out till the final hour so that nobody gets a chance to jump ship. On the night of January 21st, the BJP released the names of its last six candidates, having named 64 of them on January 17th. Along with Congress state president Kishor Upadhaya, Rawat was in Delhi for three days waiting for the BJP’s final announcement to see who all have sneaked away. The next afternoon, the party released a list of 63 candidates. While 13 of its rebels found place in the BJP list, the Congress managed to poach one candidate from the BJP at the last moment. Rawat tries to put a brave face to that awkward ratio, saying that his party would form the government all the same. When I say that the ground signals suggest otherwise, he does not refute it. “We will fight with full determination,” he states, “It is up to the people of Uttarakhand. If they don’t give me another chance, I would still thank them. A person like me could become the Chief Minister of the state only because of their support.”

The Chief Minister’s unspoken acceptance of likely defeat says a lot about Congress chances in Uttarakhand. In 2012, the party had achieved a wafer-thin victory in the 70-seat Assembly. It won 32 seats, only one more than the BJP’s tally, and it needed the support of three MLAs of the Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) and one of the Uttarakhand Kranti Dal (UKD) to secure a majority for a government headed by Vijay Bahuguna. The choice of Chief Minister was a sore point for Harish Rawat, a minister in the UPA Government at the Centre back then, but he stayed silent. “It has always happened with me that I worked hard and someone else got rewarded,” he claims, “But I stood by my party.” In 2013, the state faced a natural calamity at Kedarnath when a cloud burst resulted in a ‘Himalayan tsunami’ that left thousands dead and many marooned. Bahuguna’s inept handling of relief and rehabilitation work drew such fierce criticism that he had to make way for Rawat to take over in February 2014. But it also left the party reeling under factional feuds. On March 18th last year, nine Congress MLAs—including former Chief Minister Bahuguna—revolted against Rawat and demanded a trust vote in the Assembly. It was after a brief period of President’s Rule that the nine rebels were disqualified from participating in the vote of confidence, and Rawat was re-appointed Chief Minister on May 10th. All the rebels are now in the BJP.

This is the last chance for Congress to be in power here. If BJP wins, we will never be able to recover. We will fight with full determination

Many Congress leaders blame Rawat for bringing the party to such a sorry pass in the state. “He runs a one-man show without giving any importance to other leaders. That was the main reason, so many leaders moved out of the party,” says a Congress MLA standing for re-election. “The CM’s Office has more than 50 personal staffers and only they run the government,” he adds, “No one listens to us.” Rawat, however, denies any over-centralisation of power. “I have a record of maximum cabinet meetings during my tenure,” says the Chief Minister, “This means I take opinions from everyone.”

The opposition BJP, meanwhile, looks all set to return to power in the hill state. Dehradun and all the semi-urban agglomerations around the state capital are plastered with posters and billboards bearing the party’s lotus symbol. Slogans such as ‘Kya Haal, Majdoor Behaal’ (How are things, the labourer is dejected) and ‘Bhajpa Ke Sang Uttarakhand’ (With the BJP, the state) adorn the city bus stands, while there is no single Congress poster in sight. “They had pre-booked all the ad spots,” says Congress MLA Hira Singh Bisht. “We couldn’t finalise preparations because of the fight between the Chief Minister and state party president.”

Says Ajay Bhat, the BJP state president who is the party’s candidate for the Ranikhet constituency, “We had strategised our campaign in a phased manner and everything was planned much in advance. Now we are in the final stage of the exercise and star campaigners will take over.”

It is not just the sights and sounds in the state that seem BJP dominated. The public mood appears inclined towards the opposition as well. Ever since the state was carved out of Uttar Pradesh in 2000, Uttarakhand has flipped one party for the other in every Assembly election. But inner-party intrigues have meant much instability, and the state has had as many as eight chief ministers in the past 16 years. ND Tiwari, who took office in 2002 as its first elected Chief Minister, was the only one to complete a five-year term. “The state cannot develop without stability and I think BJP will offer that,” says Akash Belwal, 34, who runs a garment shop on Dehradun’s arterial Rajpur Road. “I have no trust in their state leaders, but will vote for Prime Minister Narendra Modi.”

EVEN IN OTHER parts of the state, national issues seem to take precedence over regional matters. According to Ravi Bhushan Pandey, who heads the Department of Sociology at DAV PG College, Dehradun, there is a reason for this. “Every third house in Uttarakhand has either a serving or retired Army person,” he says, “The nationalist feeling translates from there itself. Historically, the state has gone with the Government at the Centre. [This also explains why] no regional party has been able to get success in the state.”

In Mothrawala village, about 14 km away from Dehradun towards Haridwar, a group of youngsters sit sunning themselves in an open ground. Pawan Thapaliyal, 28, says that he is impressed with the work done by their MLA Dinesh Agrawal—also a minister in Rawat’s cabinet—in the constituency of Dharampur, of which the village is a part, but his vote will go to the BJP. The latter has fielded Vinod Chamoli, mayor of Dharampur. “There is a BJP Government at the Centre and a BJP government here would ensure more funds and development,” he says, “BJP ki hawaa hai (there’s a BJP wave).”

That the BJP has not yet projected a chief ministerial candidate, which the Congress has tried to adopt as a poll plank, does not bother voters. A vote for the lotus, they say, is a vote for Modi

With around 175,000 votes, Dharampur is the state’s largest constituency. “If development is what they would vote for,” says Agrawal, its third-time legislator, “then I am confident of my victory.” But there are other considerations that figure in people’s choices. Amit Sharma, 37, who heads the Gram Ekta Parishad of Mothrawala, is not concerned about development. “I have two family members in the Army. Modi has boosted the morale of Army people after the surgical strike [against terrorists across the LoC]. We feel proud of our country. This is our time to pay back with our votes.”

About 3 km further down the road to Haridwar, there is Mohammadpur Barkhali, a village that will vote for the Doiwala Assembly seat. Vijay Rathor, 40, runs a small provisions store here while his wife manages a food stall by its side. “Demonetisation hit me severely and business is down by more than 70 per cent,” says Rathor, “But this is a big step for the country’s development. Things are coming back to normal and I am happy with this decision of the Government.” Ramesh Sharma, a 58-year-old resident of Nauka village, has similar things to say. “Modi has been constantly doing something for the country and the people. There is no need to ask anyone. Everyone here is a Modi supporter.” At the moment, Doiwala is a Congress seat, represented by Hira Singh Bisht, but the ruling party looks unlikely to retain it.

That the BJP has projected nobody as its chief ministerial candidate— which the Congress has tried to adopt as a poll plank— does not bother voters much. A vote for the lotus, they say, is a vote for Modi. “Whoever he sends here as Chief Minister will work on his directions,” says Ramesh Sharma.

AS FOR WHO that ‘whoever’ will be, several local BJP leaders have thrown their cap into the ring. There is Satpal Maharaj, a former Lok Sabha member who switched from the Congress in March 2014 and is contesting the Choubattakhal Assembly seat for the BJP. His supporters are presenting him as the next Chief Minister. A Rajput leader, he could draw a sizeable chunk of the state’s Kshatriya vote, which accounts for an estimated 60 per cent of the population. Rawat counts on Rajputs as well, and Maharaj supporters feel that he is best placed to challenge the current Chief Minister.

Maharaj expects a regional factor to go in his favour. Uttarakhand is broadly divided into two zones, Garhwal and Kumaon. While Rawat is from the former, Maharaj is from the latter. “The people of Kumaon have always been neglected in development work,” says Maharaj, “They need their man as the head of the state. It is their wish and I will try to fulfill it.”

It is not that the BJP has no factionalism. At the party office on Balbir Road in Dehradun, there are people shouting slogans against Bhat. They turn out to be supporters of Umesh Agrawal, who was denied a ticket from Dharampur, a seat he’d held before 2012. “It is not possible to make everyone happy,” says Bhat. “The leadership puts its faith in a winning candidate.”

Some BJP workers are also displeased that switchovers from the rival party have been given such a large share of the tickets. “We work in our constituency for five years only to find that the guy we were fighting is now our candidate,” says a ticket aspirant who still hopes for a last-minute rethink, “What should we do now?”

While it is the appeal of Brand Modi that underpins BJP hopes, individual contestants are expected to provide an extra edge in some constituencies. “BJP was only one seat short of Congress in 2012,” says Pandey. “Out of the 13 who are now fighting on BJP tickets, even if half win, BJP will be well ahead in the numbers game. All these rebels are strong leaders of their region and could win even as independents.”

About 5 km away from the BJP office is Rajiv Bhawan on Rajpur Road, the Congress state office. Here, a group has gathered in protest against Upadhaya, upset that he got the party’s ticket for the Sahaspur seat that they wanted given to Ayendra Sharma. Taking an unruly turn, these protestors tear up posters and break a few chairs, even as one goes through the motions of trying to immolate himself. But Rawat downplays this show of vehemence. “They will go back and work for the party by tomorrow,” says Rawat, who has a campaign plan to finalise under the guidance of Prashant Kishor, the party’s celebrated poll strategist. “Kishor is like chyawanprash, which one needs in old age,” says the Chief Minister, “He has given some advice and we are working on it.” The Congress, however, may need stronger stuff than an ayurvedic tonic.