Advantage BJP

Print edition : May 16, 2014

B.C. Khanduri, forner Chief Minister and the BJP candidate in Garhwal, campaigning in Pauri Garhwal. Photo: PTI

Renuka Rawat, wife of Chief Minister Harish Rawat, at an election rally in Haridwar. She faces the BJP's Ramesh Pokhriyal Nishank in the constituency. Photo: Virender Singh Negi

UTTARAKHAND is still recovering from the devastating floods of June 2013. The Congress is likely to pay a heavy price in the current elections for its government’s failure to speed up relief and rehabilitation measures. The scale is tilted towards the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), but it may not be a clean sweep for the saffron party because counter-consolidation is also happening.

The consolidation of minority votes is unprecedented in the State, which has never voted along communal lines before. The minority vote can prove decisive this time in Haridwar, Tehri and Nainital-Udhamsinghnagar, where Muslims constitute 15-20 per cent of the voting population. In the 2009 Lok Sabha elections, the Congress won all the five seats (Almora, Garhwal, Haridwar, Tehri Garhwal and Nainital-Udhamsinghnagar). The BJP is banking on the Narendra Modi factor to recover lost ground. Significantly, people remember the immediate steps taken by Modi during the floods to get pilgrims from Gujarat evacuated.

“Iss baar Modi ko vote dena jaroori hai. Dekhen to kya kaam karta hai” (one should vote for Modi this time. Let’s see what he does) is the common refrain from Nainital to Kashipur to Rudrapur to Almora.

Interestingly, this tiny Himalayan State has a history of bipolarity. Voters have preferred the BJP or the Congress. The region tilted towards the saffron party in 1991 and remained largely so, with the exception of N.D. Tiwari’s (Congress) election from Nainital in spite of the saffron surge. But ever since the 2007 Assembly elections, the BJP has been a house divided, split three ways between Bhagat Singh Koshyari, Maj. Gen (retd) B.C. Khanduri and Ramesh Pokhriyal Nishank. The infighting started soon after the BJP was voted to power in 2007. Khanduri was appointed Chief Minister, overlooking the claims of Koshyari and Nishank. In the 2009 Lok Sabha elections, the BJP, for the first time, lost all five seats to the Congress. Khanduri was removed unceremoniously from office in view of the party’s debacle and Nishank was made the Chief Minister. Khanduri suspected a conspiracy and internal sabotage, and demanded an inquiry. The BJP leadership then unceremoniously removed Nishank from office a few months before the 2012 Assembly elections, allegedly on corruption charges levelled by the Congress. Khanduri was reinstated. This time Nishank cried foul.

The infighting resulted in the BJP losing to the Congress by a difference of one seat in the Assembly elections. The Congress won 32 seats in the 70-member Assembly and the BJP 31. Subsequently, Vijay Bahuguna was elected in a byelection, and the Congress tally went up to 33. Khanduri himself was defeated even as he steered the party to victory in the other seats. The Congress formed the government with Vijay Bahuguna at the helm This upset Harish Rawat, who was widely credited with the party’s victory and was hoping to become the Chief Minister. He revolted, but was eventually reined in.

Then the disaster struck the State and all hell broke loose. The Bahuguna government failed to judge the impact of the floods, and for three days after the havoc, the state machinery was not seen in action. It was the Centre’s intervention and the defence forces’ emergency response that checked the casualty figures from rising further.

Once again, there was a clamour for Bahuguna’s removal. But the party high command took a long time to act. Bahuguna was removed in January and Harish Rawat was made the Chief Minister. It is against this backdrop that the election to the five seats in the State has to be viewed. The State has paid a heavy price for this political see-saw to the extent that the Congress has become unacceptable in most of the hilly areas.

“There has been no development whatsoever in the State for the past one and a half years. Whatever work used to be undertaken during the tourist season is also missing now. This year, the tourist season is yet to take off,” R.C. Shah, a travel and tour operator in Nainital, said. “Modi’s record is good. We must vote for him,” he said, echoing the sentiment of several residents of the hills who want a leader who will put their livelihood back on the rails. “Modi, Modi”, people standing around him shout.

But the story is different in Rudrapur, Kashipur, Udhamsinghnagar, Haridwar and Dehradun. In these areas, the minority community has a presence. Although the State has no record of Hindu-Muslim animosity, Rudrapur witnessed the first-ever communal riots in October 2011, shortly before the 2012 Assembly elections. The BJP was in power then and the people of Rudrapur still shudder to think of those three days in 2011 when there was complete mayhem. There were indications that trouble was brewing in the area for more than a month but the administration ignored the signs and did not take any pre-emptive steps. During the riots, the administration, especially the police, looked on passively, and in at least two instances they actually became party to the riots ( Frontline, November 4, 2001).

“With a BJP government in the saddle, the state machinery turned against us. Riots do happen, but the administration should not discriminate in taking action. That is not the case with a BJP government,” says Imtiyaz, a cycle shop owner in Rudrapur, whose shop was set ablaze and who had to flee for his life. People have not forgotten this experience and this is going to have a bearing on how they will vote.

“Development, governance, all that is fine, but security is foremost on our minds,” says Shahid Akram in Kashipur, which is represented in the Assembly by K.C. Singh Baba of the Congress for the past 10 years. It is this feeling that might come to the rescue of the Congress in Nainital-Udhamsinghnagar (of which Kashipur is a segment) and Haridwar. Even though the local people in Udhamsinghnagar said they were unhappy with their “missing MP”, yet many said they would vote for him because he was the “lesser evil”. The BJP has fielded Bhagat Singh Koshyari in this constituency. The same sentiment prevails in Haridwar where Renuka Rawat, wife of Harish Rawat, is the Congress candidate. The BJP has fielded Nishank in this seat.

The State goes to the polls on May 7. In politics a lot of things can change within a week, especially in a State where party politics has seen swift changes in the past few years. But one thing is certain, it is not going to be a one-sided contest as in 2009. Issues such as corruption and scams have been relegated to the background because both the parties have an equal share in them.

Purnima S. Tripathi

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