In a cleft stick

Published : Apr 06, 2012 00:00 IST

The Congress has sought to squander its narrow victory by installing the not-so-popular Vijay Bahuguna as Chief Minister.

in Dehradun

UTTARAKHAND is one State that has become a showcase of political mismanagement by the Congress and the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), the two mainstream parties. The State has proved beyond doubt that the leaderships of the two parties have to learn the basics of grass-roots politics from their regional political friends. While the BJP, which was in power, failed to play its cards well, despite the best efforts of Chief Minister B.C. Khanduri, the Congress miscalculated the voters' mood by stamping out regional aspirations. The writ of the high command in the selection of candidates ensured that the Congress ended up woefully short of the required majority of 36 seats in the 70-member House.

If there is anything like snatching defeat from the jaws of certain victory, the Congress has managed to achieve it in Uttarakhand. The party managed to merely scrape through with 32 seats against the BJP's 31, the vote share being 33.79 per cent and 33.13 per cent respectively. The difference in vote share between the two parties in the 2009 Lok Sabha elections, when the BJP lost all the five seats in the State, was 7 per cent.

In typical Congress-style mismanagement, in the last minute the leadership denied the ticket to some candidates with winning chances and ensured a vertical split in the party. Party rebels either contested as independents or sabotaged the prospects of official candidates. Three such rebel candidates Mantri Prasad Naithani, Harish Durgapal and Dinesh Tanhai have been elected. They are now supporting the 65-year-old Vijay Bahuguna, who has been made the legislature party leader after intense talks for well over seven days.

At a two-minute ceremony marked by high drama and uncertainty, a nervous Bahuguna was sworn in Chief Minister on March 13 by Governor Margaret Alva. Bahuguna flew to New Delhi immediately after he was sworn in, in order to find ways to manage the political crisis which was refusing to subside. The resentment against the elevation of Bahuguna, the son of H.N. Bahuguna, former Chief Minister of Uttar Pradesh, is so intense that until the time of writing this report, 17 MLAs had refused to take the oath on March 15. The dissenters had been rooting for Harish Rawat, Union Minister of State, for the top post ever since Vijay Bahuguna's name was announced. Bahuguna's claim of majority support, which he has to prove by March 29, lacks credibility.

Rawat, who was widely believed to be the chief ministerial candidate, is credited with helping the Congress find its feet in the Himalayan State. Rawat himself has not commented on the unfolding events and remains unavailable to the media. In a high-voltage drama on the evening of March 12, when Bahuguna was named the Chief Minister, Rawat's supporters went ballistic at his residence in New Delhi and shouted slogans not only against Bahuguna but also against Congress president Sonia Gandhi, general secretary Rahul Gandhi and Uttar Pradesh Congress president Rita Bahuguna Joshi. Rita Bahuguna is the sister of Vijay Bahuguna and is believed to be instrumental in getting her brother chosen for the top post using her access to Rahul Gandhi.

When the talks to select the Chief Minister began, the names of State PCC chief Yashpal Arya, former legislature party leader Harak Singh Rawat, and Indira Hridayesh were also doing the rounds. Union Minister Satpal Maharaj's name emerged at the eleventh hour. Initially, the party high command let it be known that it was not in favour of appointing a Member of Parliament to the top post, and so the search narrowed down to MLAs such as Yashpal Arya, Harak Singh Rawat and Indira Hridayesh. Central party leaders such as Ghulam Nabi Azad and Chaudhary Birendra Singh, who is in charge of the State, held consultations with all the elected MLAs and MPs from the State. But everyone was taken by surprise when Bahuguna's name was announced, and all hell broke loose. Harish Rawat's supporters, many of whom are still camping in Delhi, have virtually declared war on the party leadership.

Pradip Tamta, Congress MP from Almora, told reporters in Delhi that until the last moment party leaders were given to understand that the next Chief Minister would be from among the newly elected MLAs. We feel cheated. We would have accepted anyone from among the MLAs, but if an MP can be made Chief Minister then Harish Rawat should have been the choice, he said.

Surinder Agrawal, who relinquished his post as Congress spokesman after Bahuguna's name was announced, said the people of Uttarakhand, especially the grass-root workers of the Congress, had been cheated. We will never accept Vijay Bahuguna. Not only is he an outsider, but he does not have majority support, he said. According to him, the only way forward for the dedicated Congress workers of Uttarakhand now was to form a regional party. If regional aspirations keep getting crushed like this, why should one remain in the party? The Congress is heading towards an Andhra Pradesh-like crisis here, he said, referring to the revolt by the late Y.S. Rajasekhara Reddy's son Jaganmohan Reddy when he was denied the Chief Minister's post after his father's death in an air crash.

Vijay Bahuguna sounded nervously confident after taking the oath. He claimed that the party would tide over the family crisis, but it does not look that easy. He claims the support of three independents, one Uttarakhand Kranti Dal (UKD) member and three Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) MLAs, taking his total tally to 39, but whether he will get 39 votes on the floor of the House is a big question.

As for the BJP, which entered the poll process with Khanduri at the helm for a second time since he led the party to victory in 2007, the outcome has been disappointing, especially since the party came tantalisingly close to regaining power. The biggest shocker was the defeat of Khanduri himself in Kotdwar by 4,623 votes at the hands of the Congress' S.S. Negi. The retired Army major general replaced Ramesh Pokhriyal Nishank as Chief Minister in September 2011 to lead the BJP in the Assembly elections.

Nishank was forced to step down in the wake of a series of scams facing his government. With the public mood in favour of a corruption-free administration in the wake of Anna Hazare's campaign against corruption, the party's central leadership decided to bring in Khanduri, who had a clean image. But the decision-makers failed to realise that the tactics could work like a double-edged sword as this gave the Congress an opportunity to paint the BJP regime as corrupt.

The BJP leaders failed to convince the voters why they made a leadership change ahead of the elections for, in the first place, they refused to admit that the Nishank government was corrupt. Had they removed him citing corruption as the reason, the obvious question would have been why he was given the ticket again. Nishank contested from Doiwala and won the seat, proving that the BJP's calculation vis-a-vis Nishank and Khanduri had gone wrong.

Khanduri, who shifted from his official residence immediately after the results came out on March 6, said he was shocked by his defeat in Kotdwar, which is part of the Garhwal Lok Sabha constituency which he had represented since 1991 (see interview). Maybe I took the people for granted. I thought my work of the last so many years would speak for itself. Obviously, that was not enough. We lost because of a conspiracy by our own people. It was total manipulation, he said, refusing to name names, saying that he would do that in the party forum.

Nishank loyalists were quick to criticise the central leadership for the party's defeat. They reasoned that the party's performance was much better than it was in the 2009 Lok Sabha elections as the gap of 7 per cent in the voting share between the two main parties had been reduced to less than 1 per cent, which they said was the cumulative effect of five years of BJP rule. What magic did he [Khanduri] perform in the three-and-half months? People voted because of the work done by the party in the last five years. The fact that Nishank won and Khanduri lost proves that people have rejected the high command's treatment of Nishank. If Khanduri was so popular, why did the party lose in areas where he was reported to have good influence, as in the Garhwal region? The party won in the terai region, where he does not have much influence. What does it prove? a Nishank supporter asked.

According to him, just before Nishank was removed as Chief Minister, the State party had got a survey done and it had projected 35-41 seats for the BJP. Had Nishank been allowed to continue, the confusing signals could have been avoided and we would have formed the government.

As matters stand today, the party looks disoriented and devoid of direction. It has failed to elect its legislature party leader (until the time of writing this report), which means that there is still confusion about whom to promote because if Bahuguna loses the confidence vote, the Leader of Opposition will get a chance to form the government. The BJP office in Dehradun looked deserted and no senior functionary was available to talk about the party's plan of action.

The Congress can take solace from the fact that it is not the only party caught in a cleft stick. It has good company.

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