Although exit polls hint at BJP having an advantage in Uttarakhand, Congress has not given up hope to form the next government. While Congress has not won a comfortable majority since the formation of the state in 2000, this time the party’s conservative estimate in the 70-member House is 35 to 40 seats, an insider said.
Before the counting of votes begins in a few hours, the capital city Dehradun is witnessing intense political activities. BJP national general secretary Kailash Vijayvargiya is already fuelling rumours about BJP hatching a backup plan in case the election results in a hung assembly. Vijayvargiya, earlier also, was instrumental in engineering rebellion in the Congress that led to the collapse of the Harish Rawat government in 2016. A year later in 2017, BJP registered a massive poll victory in the state winning the highest number of seats – 57, while Congress had its worst performance, bagging only 11 seats.
Sensing trouble, Congress has rushed a team led by Haryana MP Deepender Singh Hooda to thwart BJP’s attempt to stop Congress from forming its government in case the party gets a majority. There are chances that elected Congress MLAs will be flown out of Dehradun immediately after the poll results as part of the party's strategy. “I don’t agree with exit polls that have faulted on numerous occasions. From my experience, it could be a hung assembly. Congress has a chance to form the next government only if it gets a comfortable majority. Otherwise, BJP will have its way to install its government,” says Jay Singh Rawat, a veteran journalist from Dehradun. According to Rawat, chances are high of BSP winning two or three seats and one or two Independents. This could make it easier for BJP to keep Congress out of power again. However, he admits that anti-incumbency, lack of governance with price rise, unemployment, and migration, were factors that went against the saffron party in the polls.
Chief Minister Pushkar Singh Dhami, however, has exuded confidence that BJP will break the myth associated with Uttarakhand polls that the ruling party never returns. “The people of Uttarakhand have voted for BJP on the basis of development and government welfare schemes for the poor in the pandemic. As the exit polls have hinted, we will have a comfortable majority. In fact, the number of seats could be higher,” Dhami said on Tuesday. Towards the end of the campaign, the BJP-RSS combine had also tried to play up its Hindutva card claiming that Congress promised to set up a Muslim University on its return to power. CM Dhami spoke in favour of the Uniform Civil Code, raked up the Ram Temple construction and abrogation of Article 370 in Jammu and Kashmir.
Senior Congress leader and former CM Harish Rawat pointed out, “The BJP has tried to invoke Hindutva agenda and Modi in the polls like it did in 2017 and got good dividends. This was done to divert voters’ attention from issues such as development, governance, price rise, migration, unemployment and mishandling the Covid pandemic.” One hint that BJP failed to provide a stable government in the state was evident after it changed three Chief Ministers in the last five years – Trivendra Singh Rawat, Tirath Singh Rawat, and the incumbent Pushkar Singh Dhami. The current CM was elected to make up for the lacklustre performance by the previous two Chief Ministers. Party leaders openly admit that if either of the two previous Chief Ministers had been allowed to complete a five-year term, BJP would have gotten completely wiped out by now.
However, Congress made BJP’s bad governance a major poll issue. “The BJP government did nothing except swap chief ministers, who were non-performers and corrupt. None of the three CMs had the vision to develop the hill state. One key promise in the manifesto was setting up of Lokayukta to check corruption, but even that was conveniently forgotten,” notes Rajesh Dharmani, AICC secretary and co-in charge. He claims the Congress can win over 40 seats, yet it is keeping close tabs on the BJP that could play mischief or resort to horse-trading. “We will remain alert to any eventualities as results pour in on March 10,” says Dharmani.
Though Dhami, 46, remains the Chief Ministerial face of the BJP contesting from Khatima, analysts believe that if the party has to cobble a majority in case it’s a hung assembly, leaders like Ram Pokhriyal Nishank are waiting in the wings. Congress has not projected any leader for the Chief Ministerial post, but former CM Rawat remains a front runner. Till 2012, Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) had a sizeable presence in the Uttarakhand assembly. The party won seven seats in 2002, eight in 2007, but got reduced to three in 2012. This time, BSP stands a chance to show up again after not winning even a single seat in 2017 – an election that BJP won due to the Modi wave. Aam Aadmi Party (AAP), also in the fray, is unlikely to make a dent. The same could be the fate of Uttarakhand Kranti Dal (UKD) which bagged four seats in 2002 as its leaders played a major role in the formation of Uttarakhand.