A clear win in Uttaranchal

Print edition : March 02, 2002

The Congress(I) secures a clear majority in Uttaranchal, defying exit poll projections.

THE Congress(I) stormed to power in the hill State of Uttaranchal in its first Assembly elections, held on February 14. The popular mood was decidedly against the Bharatiya Janata Party government even before the election process began. Disappointment had set in soon after the formation of the new State in November 2000, with the people feeling more and more sidelined in the affairs of the State.

The Congress(I), with 36 seats in the 70-member Assembly, has won a majority on its own, defying exit poll projections, but is to form the government in alliance with the Uttarakhand Kranti Dal (UKD), which won four seats. The BJP, with 19 seats, has been left wondering as to what went wrong. Its confidence had been bolstered by exit polls.

The BJP suffered a string of defeats. All its Ministers except three - Chief Minister Bhagat Singh Koshiyari, Tourism Minister Ajay Bhatt, and Harbans Kapoor - lost. In all its eight Ministers, including Narayan Singh Rana and Kedarsingh Fonia, were defeated. The defeat of Nityanand Swami, the first Chief Minister of the State, came as a rude shock for the BJP: he lost by over 1,500 votes to Dinesh Agrawal of the Congress(I). Another notable setback for the BJP was the defeat of Ramesh Pokhriyal Nishank, a young Minister in the outgoing government, who once eyed the Chief Minister's post after Nityanand Swami's exit in October last. He lost by 997 votes.

In the Tehri Garhwal region, where the BJP was plagued by rebellion after the nominees of Member of Parliament Manvendra Shah, the erstwhile king of Tehri, were denied the ticket, the BJP did not win a single seat. Party rebels had vowed to defeat the official candidates there. The BJP retained only two of the five seats it held in Nainital district, the stronghold of Congress(I) veteran N.D. Tiwari.

Among the notable Congress(I) winners are its Legislature Party leader Indira Hridayesh, who won from Haldwani. She beat Agriculture Minister Banshidhar Bhagat by 3,000 votes. The party's State general secretary, Kishore Upadhayay, also won convincingly from Tehri.

The Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) sprang a few surprises in Uttaranchal as it did in Uttar Pradesh: it won seven seats, mainly in Hardwar district.

The UKD, which was the first political party to have included the demand for the creation of the separate State of Uttaranchal in its manifesto, is likely to become a major player in the State's politics since Pradesh Congress(I) chief Harish Rawat has expressed his intention to include it in the government. "I want to bridge the communication gap that had been created between the people and the government ever since the BJP government came to power. It (UKD) represents a substantial section of the local people and has played a major role in the creation of the State. I want it to be involved in governance. But the final decision will certainly be taken by the party high command," he told reporters as the results began to pour in.

Koshiyari, bowing to the people's verdict, submitted his resignation to Governor Surjit Singh Barnala on February 24.

Gopal Singh Rana (right) of the Congress(I) who was elected from Khatima constituency. He polled the highest margin of votes in Uttaranchal.-

Koshiyari said that the reasons for the BJP's defeat could be overconfidence on the part of party workers because they had assumed that since the BJP had helped in the creation of the State the people would automatically vote for them. "But we tried our best," he said.

AS for the next Chief Minister, Harish Rawat appeared to be leading the race. Local leaders felt that since the party was steered to victory under Rawat's leadership, he should be made the Chief Minister. "Besides, there is a precedent in Rajasthan, Karnataka and Madhya Pradesh where PCC presidents have been made Chief Ministers," said Dhirendra Pratap, the party's State general secretary and chief media coordinator, in Dehra Dun.

However, the CLP meeting on February 25, attended by All India Congress Committee (AICC) general secretaries Ghulam Nabi Azad and Ambika Soni, adopted a resolution authorising party president Sonia Gandhi to choose the new leader.

Sources in the Congress(I) headquarters said that since the party fought the Uttaranchal elections under Rawat's leadership, he was a strong contender for the post. Other contenders included N.D. Tiwari, AICC secretary Satpal Maharaj, and senior Congress(I) leader Vijay Bahugana. "We have requested Soniaji to decide for the CLP. However, the views of the newly elected legislators would be taken into consideration," Rawat told reporters. Rawat, who did not contest the elections, parried questions as to whether the Chief Minister would be elected from among the legislators.

Interestingly, Rawat announced that the party would change the name of the State from Uttaranchal to Uttarakhand, which was the original name given by the movement for a separate State even before it had acquired political undertones. Asked if the party would have performed better had it not changed its list of candidates at the eleventh hour, Rawat said, "I don't think so." He added: "We expected to touch the figure of 45. However, owing to certain circumstances, I personally could not expand my horizon. But definitely all the leaders contributed towards the party's victory." Satpal Maharaj, a leader from Pauri Garhwal, threatened to resign from the party as his nominees were not accommodated. The list of candidates was changed at the last hour to please Maharaj, who enjoys the patronage of N.D. Tiwari.

Uttaranchal witnessed incident-free polling and recorded a 53 per cent voter turnout despite the fact that many areas remained snow-bound and cut off from the rest of the State. In fact no candidates visited some of these areas for campaigning.

The Congress(I) won 30 per cent of the votes polled, and the BJP 27 per cent. The people, faced with several problems after the creation of the State, were perhaps unimpressed by the BJP's claim of having gifted them their own State. Obviously, the slogan coined by Union Home Minister L.K. Advani, Swaraj diya hai, Suraaj bhi denge (we have given you the State, now we will give you good governance), failed to appeal to the voters. Also, the BJP's knee-jerk reaction of packing off the non-performing Chief Minister Nityanand Swami even before he could complete one year in office and replacing him with Koshiyari only served to strengthen the people's perception of the government being a failure.

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