Cover Story: Uttarakhand

Decisive mandate

Print edition : March 31, 2017

Shyam Jaju (seond, right), in charge of the BJP in Uttarakhand, along with former Chief Minister Ramesh Pokhriyal Nishank (third from right) celebrating the party's victory in Dehradun. Photo: PTI

Harish Rawat at a media conference after the Congress' defeat, in Dehradun. Photo: PTI

The BJP gets a three-fourths majority, winning 57 seats in the 70-member Assembly, and the ruling Congress is reduced to a very weak opposition with just 11 seats.

IN A MAJOR DEPARTURE FROM THE PAST, the electorate of Uttarakhand gave a decisive mandate to the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) in the single-phase election to the 70-member Assembly. The election, which was held on February 15, saw a massive voter turnout of almost 68 per cent, two percentage points more than in 2012. The BJP won 57 seats. The Congress’ strength was reduced to 11, its worst ever tally since the first elections to the Assembly in 2002. The three-fourths majority secured by the BJP came as a surprise as the Congress and the BJP had a close finish in the last three Assembly elections, held in 2002, 2007 and 2012. While three pollsters predicted a comfortable edge for the BJP this time, a fourth predicted a tie. No pollster foretold an overwhelming majority for the BJP.

In 2012, the Congress won 32 seats, one seat more than the BJP, and formed the government with the support of the Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP), which had won three seats. That the Congress received its worst drubbing in 2017 was indicated by the defeat of its star campaigner and incumbent Chief Minister Harish Rawat. Rawat was defeated in both constituencies he had contested in, Kichcha and Haridwar (Rural). While Rawat lost Kichcha by more than 2,000 votes, the margin of victory for the BJP candidate in Haridwar (Rural) was around 12,000 votes. However, some BJP heavyweights, such as State party president Ajay Bhatt, also lost.

Union Finance Minister Arun Jaitley tweeted that the Uttarakhand victory showed the people’s support for the development agenda of Prime Minister Narendra Modi. There was more to the BJP’s victory than the development factor.

In Uttarakhand, there was a strong anti-incumbency sentiment against the Rawat regime, which could not put its own house together. Added to this was the burgeoning agrarian, economic and employment crisis, particularly in the hill areas, which resulted in migration to the plains. Moreover, the BJP’s own gamble of taking onboard several Congress heavyweights and giving them the ticket paid dividends. One of the electoral issues before the Congress was the reconstruction of the Kedarnath temple, which was damaged in the 2013 floods, and the establishment of a permanent capital at Gairsain.

Vote shares

A close look at the vote shares of the main political parties in the last three elections shows that the Congress’ vote share has remained more or less constant: it was 33.79 per cent in the 2012 Assembly elections, 34.4 per cent in the 2014 Lok Sabha elections and 33.5 per cent in 2017. The BJP’s vote share, on the other hand, declined from 55.93 per cent in 2014 to 46.5 per cent in 2017. However, it gained in comparison to the 2012 elections, when its vote share was 33.13 per cent. The BJP in fact gained the bulk of the vote shares of the BSP and independents. The BSP was the biggest loser this time. Although its vote share of 6.9 per cent is marginally higher than 4.1 per cent in 2014, it is half of what it was in 2012, when it won three seats and got 12.19 per cent of the votes. Both the BSP and the Uttarakhand Kranti Dal (UKD) did not win a single seat.

Rawat admits flaws

Rawat took full responsibility for the poor showing of the Congress and attributed the results to flaws in his leadership. The Congress also complained of a resource crunch, which was not convincing. The party had clearly a lot to reflect upon.

For those familiar with the politics of the State, the writing was on the wall ever since the Congress government was forced to face a vote of confidence in the Assembly in May 2016. The Rawat government braved through one crisis after another, barely managing to save the government after the trust vote and a brief interregnum of Central rule. But the die had been cast and rebellion within the Congress came out in the open, leaving no one in doubt that the BJP would be the main beneficiary of the split in the Congress. The problem was that most of the senior leaders, such as Vijay Bahuguna and Harak Singh Rawat, and seven legislators defected to the BJP. Vijay Bahuguna, the son of former Uttar Pradesh Chief Minister H.N. Bahuguna, had been elected to the Lok Sabha twice on the Congress ticket. His tenure as Uttarakhand Chief Minister was cut short in 2014 following criticism that he did not handle efficiently the relief and rescue operations after the 2013 floods that ravaged Kedarnath. He was replaced by Harish Rawat. While Bahuguna himself did not contest the Assembly election, his son Saurabh Bahuguna contested on the BJP ticket from Sitarganj and won with a huge margin of 28,000 votes.

Twelve of the 14 Congress rebels who contested on the BJP ticket have been elected. Prominent among them are the Dalit stalwart Yashpal Arya from Bajpur constituency, his son Sanjeev Arya from Nainital, Satpal Maharaj from Chaubattakhal, and Harak Singh Rawat from Kotdwar. Satpal Maharaj may well be the BJP’s choice for Chief Minister. Other hopefuls for the post are Trivendra Singh Rawat (Doiwala), who was until recently the leader in charge of the party in Jharkhand, and Prakash Pant (Pithoragarh). There has been some indication that the party will opt for a relatively younger face as the next Chief Minister although the more important consideration will ultimately be the candidate’s proximity to Narendra Modi and party president Amit Shah. “If they can install a Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh [RSS] member as Chief Minister in Haryana, they can do the same in Uttarakhand, too,” said a political observer.

Expected denouement

Although the Congress’ defeat was more or less expected, most political observers, including exit pollsters, did not expect the BJP to secure a three-fourths majority leaving the Congress with a pitiable 11 seats and reducing the UKD (whose vote share is less than 1 per cent) and the BSP to political nonentities in the State. The BSP, it may be recalled, had supported the Congress during the floor test but the two parties did not forge an electoral understanding. The 2017 Assembly elections remained a singularly bipolar contest. There was no visible and credible third alternative. In fact, it was also dubbed as a contest between Narendra Modi and Harish Rawat. Not many in the State BJP leadership, including its former Chief Ministers, were seen actively campaigning for the party. The party was careful not to project any single person as its chief ministerial face. There was ample dissent in the BJP, too, which reflected in the triangular contests in some seats. The defeat of Ajay Bhatt in Ranikhet would not have happened if the BJP wave was actually at work.

To make matters worse, the Congress removed Vijay Bahuguna in 2014 and installed Harish Rawat as Chief Minister, triggering a major political rebellion. This was a tactical error and the party got split vertically. Vijay Bahuguna’s sister and former Congress leader Rita Bahuguna also switched over to the BJP and won in Uttar Pradesh defeating Mulayam Yadav’s daughter-in-law, Aparna Yadav. The “Bahuguna effect” criss-crossed two States. .

In January, less than a month before the elections, several district Congress leaders abandoned the ship. The social engineering of the Congress, which is known traditionally as a party representing the socially backward castes and classes, took a jolt when Santosh Kashyap, who was the chairperson of the State Council for Backward Classes, left the party along with three other Congress leaders citing dissatisfaction over ticket distribution and Harish Rawat’s decision to contest from two seats depriving local leaders of a chance to contest.

The BJP raised issues such as a controversial video showing Harish Rawat allegedly luring rebel MLAs and the allegations that he encouraged the mining, liquor and land mafia. The BJP held a series of Jan Chetna and Parivartan rallies. While Modi remained the lead campaigner for the party, senior Union Ministers such as Rajnath Singh, Arun Jaitley and Smriti Irani were roped in for campaigning. While Congress vice president Rahul Gandhi addressed two rallies and held a road show, Harish Rawat was the only State party leader to campaign in the elections. It seemed that the Congress was not fully behind him. Going by the results and vote margins in 2012, the Congress should ideally have avoided several pitfalls, including destabilising its own government in 2014 when it removed Vijay Bahuguna. In the 2012 elections, the party won at least 19 seats by a margin of less than 2,000 votes.

Skewed development

Apart from the rebellion in the party, it was the Rawat government’s inability to address the problem of the skewed pattern of development that worked against the party. Much of the job opportunities were concentrated in Dehradun, Haridwar and Udham Singh Nagar districts.

According to a journalist from Uttarakhand, the majority of ordinary people in the State had not benefited from the State formation. “Uttarakhand was seen more as an extension counter of Uttar Pradesh,” he said. There was little change in the human development indices of the State, and the employment situation, especially for those residing in the hills, remained grim. Migration from the hills to the plains was a burgeoning issue and the Congress did little about it, embroiled as it was in setting its own house in order.

The Congress took many unpopular decisions, too. Some of the provisions in the Panchayati Raj Act, enacted 15 years after the State’s formation, turned out to be appalling. According to the Act, a population of 500 would constitute a single gram panchayat. Administratively, it was an irrational criterion in view of the dispersed nature of homesteads in the hills. The Act also made the presence of a functional toilet in the household a precondition for contesting local body elections. This clause ensured the automatic exclusion of many people, mainly the poor, from contesting these elections. The industrial working class was equally disenchanted with the Congress. In the industrial areas, which were confined to Haridwar, Dehradun and Udham Singh Nagar, the application of labour laws was minimal.

The incidents in Muzaffarnagar in Uttar Pradesh resulted in demographic changes in Uttarakhand as members of the minority community began to move to safe havens in the neighbouring State. This, observers say, was used to good effect by the BJP.

The party’s main campaigner, Narendra Modi, used corruption by the Congress as a rallying point. Modi addressed four rallies and talked about pressing problems like migration and unemployment and promised to strengthen tourism around the char dham, the four Hindu pilgrimage sites of Badrinath, Kedarnath, Gangotri and Yamunotri. He specifically addressed retired defence personnel, reminding them about the party’s implementation of their one rank one pension (OROP) demand.

Despite Harish Rawat’s sustained campaign and his projection of the reconstruction work he carried out in Kedarnath, the electorate chose to look the other way.

For some strange reason, the Congress did not even make the poaching of its party MLAs by the BJP or demonetisation an electoral issue, said Rajinder Negi, State secretary of the Communist Party of India (Marxist). The Left parties together put up 12 candidates and focussed on the real concerns of the people in their campaigns. People’s issues, political observers said, were not consistently raised even by the BJP.

The BJP gave the ticket to 14 Congress rebels. This did not evoke much protest within the BJP despite the fact that the party expelled several ticket aspirants. In the ultimate analysis, the rebels hurt the Congress more than the BJP.

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