Opinion

In Uttarakhand Musical Chairs, Pushkar Singh Dhami Is The New Player

The Uttarakhand ferris-wheel spins yet again, with the 10th CM in 21 years. But the BJP is staring at both regional disaffection and internal dissension, months before polls.

In Uttarakhand Musical Chairs, Pushkar Singh Dhami Is The New Player
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BJP-ruled Uttarakhand witnessed swift power play last week—the hill state’s third in four months. Tirath Singh Rawat, sworn in as CM in March after the BJP sacked predecessor Trivendra Singh Rawat, put in his papers, making way for two-term MLA Pushkar Singh Dhami to take over months before the state votes a new assembly. Tirath’s resignation was necessary to avert a constitutional crisis. A Lok Sabha MP when he was named CM, Tirath had to be elected as an MLA within six months. He said he resigned as his election “would not be possible” because the current assembly’s tenure expires on March 23, 2022—according to the Representation of the People Act, 1951, bypolls cannot be held if an assembly’s remaining term is “less than one year”. How the BJP missed this legal complication when it appointed Tirath on March 10 is a question no one in the party is willing to answer.

Dhami was sworn in on July 4 as the 10th CM in the state’s brief political history of 21 years. His elevation preceded 48 hours of political drama that spotlighted fissures in the Uttarakhand BJP. BJP leaders anonymously conceded that the party would not win in 2022 with Tirath in command since the Garhwal MP, like Trivendra, had “lost the confidence of the party’s state unit”, “lacked administrative skills” and had “alienated the electorate, particularly woman ­voters, by his controversial remarks”.

With assembly polls due in February-­March 2022, the task ahead for Dhami isn’t easy. Sources say over a dozen of BJP’s 56 legislators are unhappy at Dhami’s appointment. Among them are leaders such as B.S. Chuphal, Dhan Singh Rawat, Satpal Maharaj, Yashpal Arya and Harak Singh Rawat—the latter three had defected from the Congress in 2016. They are CM aspirants who have now been made cabinet ministers.

For the BJP, the small window before the assembly polls will require adroit political manoeuvring. Balancing expectations of voters and political leaders from the Garhwal and Kumaon regions and the electorally dominant Thakur and Brahmin communities has been a tough act for both the Congress and the BJP. By choosing Dhami, a Thakur like Tirath and Trivendra, as CM and leaving the state leadership under Madan Kaushik, a Brahmin, the BJP has tried to keep both communities happy. Even the expectation that PM Narendra Modi would induct a Garhwali leader in the Union cabinet for regional appeasement was belied, as he went for Ajay Bhatt, again a Kumaoni, though a Brahmin.

The disarray in the BJP has given the Congress hope of ending its electoral drought next year and regaining power in the bipolar state. “People of Uttarakhand are fed up with the BJP. Every time the party comes to power, it brings in a period of instability and bad governance,” says former CM Harish Rawat, the Congress’s tallest leader in the state.

For the BJP, the confidence of retaining power comes from the fact that the Congress is a house divided. Congress sources concede that Harish Rawat has wide acceptability across the state, but his colleagues are dead set against him being projected as the CM. Veterans like former CM Vijay Bahuguna, Satpal Maharaj, Yashpal Arya and Harak Singh Rawat had all defected to the BJP largely because of differences with Harish Rawat. With Maharaj, Arya and Harak Singh reportedly upset at playing second fiddle to leaders like Trivendra, Tirath and now Dhami, a section in the ­Congress believes these former ­colleagues could be lured back. But they are aware that this won’t be possible if Harish Rawat is given charge of ­Uttarakhand again. 

(This appeared in the print edition as "Uphill Climb with Dhami")

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