Tumble in the hills

Published : Mar 23, 2007 00:00 IST

Rising prices and an aloof Chief Minister proved dear for the Congress in Uttarakhand.


RISING prices of essential commodities, a Chief Minister who held his job with obvious reluctance, and infighting in the Congress seem to have paved the way for the Bharatiya Janata Party's (BJP) win in Uttarakhand. The BJP won 34 of the 69 Assembly seats that went to the polls, which was short of an absolute majority but substantially more than the Congress' tally of 21.

Coming so soon before the Assembly elections in Uttar Pradesh, the defeat in Uttarakhand was especially painful for the Congress, particularly because even the party's critics in the State agree that the N.D. Tiwari government did some good work. The economy recorded a healthy growth rate, the flow of investments was good and infrastructure developed at a robust pace. So, what went wrong?

Congress leaders, especially the junior ones, point to N.D. Tiwari's absence from the election campaign and his known reluctance to hold on to the chief ministerial post. That he wanted to step down became public knowledge in the beginning of 2006, when he gave in his resignation to party president Sonia Gandhi. He was, of course, forced to continue, but his reluctance was obvious and he was hardly visible in the election campaign.

Birendra Singh Bisht, All India Congress Committee member and State general secretary in charge of office affairs in Dehra Dun, said the Chief Minister's absence from the campaign proved costly for the party. "He does not need the party but the party needed him to win the elections. We tried to convince voters about our commitment to development, but Tiwariji's absence confused them. His negative attitude, reflected in statements that he was forced to continue as Chief Minister and would not continue in office once the elections were over, went against us," Bisht said.

The BJP, naturally, made much of this in its campaign, turning Tiwari's absence into an issue. "The captain has deserted the sinking ship. The Congress has become leaderless and directionless and is in a state of perpetual conflict," BJP general secretary in charge of the State Ravi Shankar Prasad declared at a press conference on February 5. "As in Bihar, we are here to pack off the Congress with bag and baggage," he added.

Inexplicably, the Congress leadership did not address the problem while there was still time. There seems to have been no attempt to bridge the growing communication gap between Tiwari and his party workers.

However, Tiwari's aloofness was not the only factor that went against the Congress. Congress leader and former Rajasthan Chief Minister Ashok Gehlot blamed the rising prices for his party's defeat, saying no State government could afford to ignore rising prices.

"The State governments need to take tough steps to control prices," he says. He said the results in Punjab and Uttarakhand proved that a government's performance becomes immaterial when a "mood for change" sets in among a people who have become "more demanding". "Then it does not matter whether you have worked or not. I have myself been a victim of this factor," he said.

The presence of a large number of rebel candidates worked against the Congress. Bisht said: "But for the rebels, we would have won over 40 seats. If we add up the votes captured by Congress rebels and those polled by our official candidates, we find it amounts to a comfortable majority." All the three independent candidates who won - Gagan Rajwar from Dharchula, Yeshpal Benam from Pauri and Rajendra Bhandari from Nandprayag - were Congress rebels. All of them have now extended support to the B.C. Khanduri government.

Bisht said that some of the rebels were "genuinely good" candidates and were denied the ticket by the party at the "whims" of some senior party leaders. In Nandprayag, Satpal Maharaj insisted on the ticket for a candidate who had lost the election in 2002 while Rajendra Bhandari's plea was ignored.

The presence of rebels apart, the Congress in general failed to project a united face. In contrast, the BJP, from the very beginning, managed to present a united front. There were ripples about a reported tussle between State BJP president Bhagat Singh Koshyari and Major-General (Retd.) B.C. Khanduri for the chief ministerial post, but it was never allowed to come out in the open. The two were invariably seen together at all important events, whether it was the release of the party manifesto or that of the list of candidates, or meetings of central party leaders.

State Congress leaders, however, are taking solace in the narrow margin of the BJP's victory. The election results did not exactly reflect a rout for the Congress, they say. Moreover, the BJP did not get an absolute majority. "The BJP must bank on the smaller UKD [Uttarakhand Kranti Dal] and independents to survive," pointed out Surendra Agrawal, party spokesman in Dehra Dun. According to him, if the secular vote had not become fragmented, the Congress would have formed the government.

In any case, the BJP seemed to have learnt a lesson from its defeat in 2002 and was prepared well for this round. "Our overconfidence and the consequent mismanagement of the [2002] elections cost us the State. This time we are prepared and well-managed," Koshyari said when his party's campaign was flagged off on February 5.

The BJP went on to form the government with the help of three UKD legislators and the three Congress rebels who won as independents. From the beginning, however, it was clear that the party, which had saffron-clad sadhus bless the new Chief Minister, would not have an easy time of it. All the three UKD members and the independents demanded ministerial berths.

However, the size of the Ministry in Uttarakhand cannot exceed 12. The upshot was that Khanduri took oath practically alone. Only Prakash Pant, a former Assembly Speaker, was sworn in along with him as a Cabinet Minister to balance the "Garhwal and Kumaon factors". Since Khanduri belongs to Garhwal, somebody from Kumaon had to be included, a senior Minister said. The rivalry between the Garhwal and Kumaon regions of Uttarakhand for political power is legendary.

For the first time, a senior Army officer, and one who is known to be a stickler for rules, has taken charge as Chief Minister. Politicians are waiting to see how he conducts himself amid hardened politicians. But senior leaders say the biggest challenge for him would be to bring prices under control and take measures to improve the quality of life.

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