Faltering fervour

Print edition : April 27, 2019

Congress president Rahul Gandhi with Manish Khanduri, son of BJP leader and former Chief Minister B.C. Khanduri, who has joined the Congress, on March 16. Also seen is former Chief Minister Harish Rawat. Photo: By Special Arrangement

The focus on “muscular nationalism” does not seem to be working out in the way the BJP expected in Uttarakhand, which has a large number of families that send their sons to the armed forces.

Until recently, the overwhelming feeling within the Uttarakhand unit of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and the rest of the Sangh Parivar outfits was that victory for the BJP in the five Lok Sabha seats of the State was a foregone conclusion. The conviction was based on several factors. Uttarakhand, which has the highest Army recruitments per capita of the population, was considered fertile ground for the “muscular nationalism” theme that the BJP has adopted as the mainstay of its 2019 election campaign. There is an oft-repeated local saying that every house in Uttarakhand has at least one person in the Army. It was assumed, therefore, that the BJP’s campaign highlighting national security issues and focussing on the Pulwama terrorist attack and the consequent Indian Air Force air strike at Balakot would evoke a “special reaction” in Uttarakhand. The State’s “soldierly households”, it was argued, had a “special affinity” for the security issues that were being raised by Prime Minister Narendra Modi and other BJP leaders. They were expected to respond overwhelmingly in favour of the ruling party and its patriotism pitch.

The outright anti-Muslim communal orientation that the BJP leadership, including Modi, imparted to the “muscular nationalism” campaign was also thought to be working in the party’s favour in a State where upper-caste communities, which have traditionally formed the BJP’s core constituency, constitute more than 50 per cent of the population; Thakurs account for nearly 30 per cent, while Brahmins constitute approximately 22 per cent. Other Backward Class (OBC) communities such as Yadavs, Kurmis and a few other smaller castes are estimated to constitute 13 per cent of the population; Scheduled Castes 19 per cent; Scheduled Tribes 3 per cent; and Muslims, Christians, Buddhists and other minority communities together 13 per cent. The Hindutva forces had also made deep inroads into OBC, S.C. and S.T. communities over the last 10 years.

This confidence in the certainty of a BJP victory started waning after the campaign started gathering momentum in the first week of April. It was clear that the “soldierly households” were not exactly excited by the “muscular nationalism”. A number of Sangh Parivar activists based in Dehradun, Haridwar and Tehri admitted to Frontline that they were yet to see the patriotic fervour that they had hoped for. Some of them said even reports from the hill district of Pauri, part of the Garhwal Lok Sabha seat and a region with huge concentration of service men and ex-servicemen, indicated a lukewarm response to the BJP’s campaign. “People are not coming out as enthusiastically as we had expected. We are not able to understand why the public reaction is so muted,” said an RSS activist based in Dehradun.

Frontline’s interactions with a wide cross section of people in the Dehradun, Haridwar and Tehri regions of Uttarakhand brought up something that BJP and other Sangh Parivar workers and leaders seemed to have either missed or deliberately overlooked. There is a dominant public perception in the State that the BJP and its Union government were politicising national security issues beyond limits and that Modi and other leaders such as party president Amit Shah were literally going for an overkill. A group of Dehradun-based engineering college students, hailing from different parts of Uttarakhand and western Uttar Pradesh, that Frontline spoke to talked about the Prime Minister’s March 27 address to the nation about the Anti-Satellite (ASAT) test and his later assertions at political rallies that “he had the courage to conduct surgical strikes on land, air and in space”. The students felt Modi was trying to appropriate the credit that was actually due to India’s space scientists. “In fact, many of us had looked forward to taking revenge on Pakistan for Pulwama and were immensely thrilled when Balakot happened. We were also not happy about the questions on evidence for Balakot that were being raised from different quarters, including from some opposition parties. And then this pronouncement on the Anti-Satellite test was made, and there was no way we could miss the element of drama in that. Once that happened, everything got shrouded in the perception that this was a kind of political nautanki [drama],” said a student who added that he had several members of his family serving the forces.

As similar reactions keep emerging from the ground, the consensus in the political class and among observers is that there is a good contest brewing in the Garhwal, Almora, Nainital-Udham Singh Nagar and Tehri Garhwal constituencies. Even BJP activists admit that as things stand in early April, the Congress has the upper hand in Almora and Nainital-Udham Singh Nagar. Former Chief Minister Harish Rawat is the Congress candidate in Nainital-Udham Singh Nagar, where, incidentally, the sitting BJP MP, Bhagat Singh Koshyari, has refused to contest. He cited old age as the reason, but according to the grapevine within the party, there were virtually no takers for this seat. Ultimately, the BJP was forced to field State party president Ajay Bhatt from the seat to ensure a good fight against Rawat. The former Chief Minister is a five-time MP who defeated BJP veteran Murli Manohar Joshi from neighbouring Almora in the 1980s.

Opposition leaders such as Congress State president Pradip Singh, contesting from Tehri Garhwal against BJP MP Mala Rajya Lakshmi Shah, and Professor Satya Narayan Sachan of the Samajwadi Party (S.P.), were of the view that the contest was stiff in all five seats and that the BJP was on the downslide in all of them. “I would not be surprised if there is a reverse sweep this time, with the BJP losing all five seats. Even as the muscular nationalism campaign is petering out, core issues of employment, forest degradation in the name of development, and the confusion on the interpretation of the Forest Rights Act (FRA) are gaining traction, although with local variations and differences in terms of intensity and impact. All this does not bode well for the ruling party,” Sachan told Frontline.

Pradip Singh said that the BJP’s support had been shrinking over the past five years and that the downslide was now more pronounced in the run-up to the Lok Sabha election. “As for the Congress, we have got our act together after a dip in the 2014-17 period and we are attracting younger generation leaders even from the BJP. A clear illustration of this is in the entry of Manish Khanduri, son of BJP veteran and former Chief Minister General Bhuvan Chandra Khanduri, into the Congress.” The younger Khanduri is the Congress candidate for the Garhwal seat, represented by his father in the outgoing Lok Sabha. B.C. Khanduri has remained with the BJP and has declared his support for party candidate Tirath Singh Rawat. But his son’s shift to the Congress has made the saffron party nervous.

A comparison of the statistics of the 2014 Lok Sabha and the 2017 Assembly elections bears out Pradip Singh’s contention on the BJP’s downslide. Five years ago, the BJP got 55.93 per cent of the votes and won all five parliamentary seats. In the Assembly elections held three years later, it polled 46.5 per cent of the votes. The Congress’ vote share also came down, but by a smaller margin, from 34.40 per cent in 2014 to 33.5 per cent in 2017. This loss was attributed to the intense inner-party tussles in the 2014-17 period, but the party seems to have sorted out the internal differences.

The partners of the Uttar Pradesh secular alliance, the Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) and the S.P., are contesting four of the five seats. However, the combine seems to have traction in only Haridwar. The BSP candidate here, Dr Antriksh Saini, has a base among the numerically significant Saini community and Muslims. The consensus among observers is that Saini’s presence may ultimately help the BJP’s Ramesh Pokhriyal “Nishank” over Ambarish Kumar of the Congress.

Be that as it may, the BJP seems to have lost the confident conviction of a sure win in the State.

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