Last year, Uttarakhand hogged the limelight for all the wrong reasons—sting operation, defections, horse trading, floor test, President’s rule and so on. Voters are annoyed but not surprised, and it seems to have helped many to make up their mind for the forthcoming assembly polls. In fact, only the first assembly elected in 2002—the state was carved out of Uttar Pradesh on November 8, 2000—was free of the instability caused by internal squabbles that plagued both the subsequent governments. In the past 15 years, the state has seen five chief ministers, with two of them taking oath more than once. And the CM who gave the state its only stable government, Congress leader N.D. Tiwari, has now made his son join the BJP. The fight between the Congress and the BJP is now neck and neck.
Indeed, the two biggest national parties have not allowed any regional party to grow in the hill state, turning every election into a Congress-BJP duel. The election this year is likely to be no different, except that there are too many rebels or turncoats this time on both sides. Interestingly, Uttarakhand has always voted to power the party not ruling at the Centre.
Besides the usual factors—anti-incumbency, corruption, shifting party loyalties—demonetisation is likely to be big on the voter’s mind as it has affected households across classes. In Doiwala constituency, traders are unhappy over demonetisation. For instance, the family of Virendra Kumar had to face embarrassment when the groom’s side refused to accept a cheque as guarantee against cash for dowry.
Migration in search of livelihood is a huge issue in both Garhwal and Kumaon regions, but every party in power has pushed it under the carpet. There are many villages like Huna (in the Garhwal hills), which is now left with only two families, with most villagers shifting to the plains to find work and make ends meet. With the majority of young people moving to other states for higher education and jobs, agricultural production is down in many villages and the demography is changing.
Much of the BJP’s support comes from Garhwal and, with the army chief, R&AW chief, Director General of Military Operations and the National Security Advisor currently from that region, the party hopes to reap a bigger harvest of votes this time.
In the battle for Uttarakhand, CM Harish Rawat is up against three former CMs—B.C. Khanduri, Ramesh Pokhriyal and B.S. Koshyari. Former Congress CM Vijay Bahuguna has also joined the BJP and his son is contesting for the BJP from Sitarganj. Moreover, the Congress MLA from Haridwar will be taking on Harak Singh Rawat, who led a group of Congress MLAs into the BJP last year. After the CM refused a ticket to irrigation minister Yashpal Arya’s son, the minister joined the BJP; now, both father and son will contest on BJP tickets. Satpal Maharaj, a former Union minister (1996-97) and Congress MP who has been with the BJP since 2014, is contesting from Chaubattakhal, while his wife, Ramnagar MLA Amrita Rawat, is also with the BJP now.
In Kedarnath, an important seat for the Congress where the government had undertaken massive construction and rehabilitation work, former Congress leader Shaila Rani Rawat is contesting on a BJP ticket. No wonder many locals say the contest is actually between the “Harish Rawat Congress” and the “non-Harish Rawat Congress”. Observers say the winning margin this time could be just as slim as it was in 2012, when the Congress had bagged only one seat more than the BJP.
“It’s a tough fight,” says Ambika Soni, Uttarakhand in-charge of the Congress. “We have re-nominated 28 MLAs for their loyalty to the party during difficult times. Each one of them will have influence in four or five seats around their own constituencies. While we have re-nominated our legislators, the BJP has given tickets to almost everyone who shifted their loyalty.”
Harish Rawat has taken oath as CM thrice since 2014
Observers say half of the ‘rebel’ candidates have little chance of winning. The BJP’s decision to give them tickets does not seem to have gone down well with many voters as well as party workers, some of whom have actually ended up joining the Congress after being denied tickets. In Roorkee, long-time RSS supporter Suresh Chandra Jain, who lost by around 600 votes in 2012, is contesting on a Congress ticket after he failed to get a BJP ticket, while his rival, MLA Pradeep Batra, on being denied a Congress ticket, is now contesting for the BJP.
“Uttarakhand politics has become highly lumpenised and corruption has seeped deep inside the system,” says writer Mangalesh Dabral. Vinay Thapliyal, who teaches at a Haridwar college, points to a “deep sense of disenchantment” among voters with the political system, which may reflect in the voting pattern and a difference of just one or two per cent in voteshare can change the outcome. “Locals have become dispassionate and detached,” he says. “The BJP may win the election by the skin of its teeth in a tough and keenly fought contest.”
Harish Rawat is up against three former CMs... Locals say the contest is between the “Harish Rawat Congress” and the “non-Harish Rawat Congress”.
Another challenge for the BJP is that it has no chief ministerial face and too many claimants. Satpal Maharaj is said to have managed to crack the inner coterie in the RSS, but Trivendra Rawat is said to be close to Amit Shah.
Thapliyal believes that while the bureaucracy is an entrenched stakeholder in the affairs of the state, the politicians have no sense of local issues. “Voters should realise that politicians come and go once every five years, but the bureaucracy stays put,” he says. “Infighting in political parties has created a vacuum in the system and the bureaucracy has stepped in to fill it. When it comes to choosing between ideology and political power, politicians will certainly choose the latter. The values that the RSS had inculcated in its workers are slowly but surely losing their relevance and depth. It is happening not just in the RSS, but also in the Left, which is facing similar dilemmas.”
Indeed, many RSS workers seem to be disillusioned with their superiors. “Sometimes I feel the RSS does not want the BJP to come to power in 2019,” says Indraprakash Pareek, an RSS supporter in Rishikesh. “Why else would they react on the reservation issue in Bihar and now in Uttar Pradesh?” That could have been a slip of the tongue or a matter of sticking to their principled stand on the issue, but there’s no denying that both the RSS and the VHP are already busy canvassing for the BJP, going door to door.
Voters of Karnaprayag are unhappy about the condition of schools. They complain that many government schools have been closed for more than five years due to lack of teachers, while most children end up in private schools. And yet political parties are least bothered about the issue, they allege.
Then there is a long-pending demand to make Gairsain the capital of Uttarakhand as it is located at the meeting point of Garhwal and Kumaon. Though the secretariat has been set up and an assembly session has also been held there, it has not been declared the capital. “Leaders come, make promises and then vanish,” says Pratap Singh Rawat, a teacher. “They do not return until it is time to seek votes again. And by then, they may have shifted their loyalty to other political parties, for reasons of self-interest.”
In Ranikhet, the fight is between leader of the Opposition Ajay Bhatt and Harish Rawat’s brother-in-law Karan Mahara, who is contesting on a Congress ticket. “All eyes are on this seat as it is a high-profile constituency,” says Sunderlal Goel, an advocate. Bhuban Chand Satyawali, sarpanch of Ringadiya village, which is in the neighbourhood of Harish Rawat’s native Mohanari, says his fellow villagers would vote for an independent candidate as they are disillusioned with both the Congress and the BJP. The chief minister is contesting from two constituencies—Kichcha and Haridwar (rural)—in the Tarai region. If he wins both seats, sources say, he will leave Haridwar (rural) for his daughter, who has been working in the constituency for the past five years.
Mohammed Zafar, sarpanch of Shivlalpur Pandey village in Ramnagar constituency, says that no party has done any social development work worth noting and so the villagers will do “tactical voting”. “Harish Rawat must explain why so many leaders deserted the Congress and joined the BJP. If the BJP does something good for the youth, we would give up our loyalty towards the Congress,” says Zafar.