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Assembly election: Uttarakhand

Uttarakhand Assembly election: Different strategies

Print edition : Feb 25, 2022 T+T-
Congress leader  Harish Rawat with Bhupesh Baghel, Chhattisgarh Chief Minister, and Ganesh Gondiyal, Uttarakhand Congress president, at a press conference in Dehradun on January 24. In a bid to woo Brahmin voters, Harish Rawat announced a commission would be set up to assess the economic and social condition of the community.

Congress leader Harish Rawat with Bhupesh Baghel, Chhattisgarh Chief Minister, and Ganesh Gondiyal, Uttarakhand Congress president, at a press conference in Dehradun on January 24. In a bid to woo Brahmin voters, Harish Rawat announced a commission would be set up to assess the economic and social condition of the community.

Priyanka Gandhi,  Congress general secretary. The party’s sudden deployment of her is seen as its way of countering the BJP’s Hindutva-centred electioneering.

Priyanka Gandhi, Congress general secretary. The party’s sudden deployment of her is seen as its way of countering the BJP’s Hindutva-centred electioneering.

Amit Shah,  Home Minister. The BJP has taken its campaign literally to the people’s doorsteps, with Shah himself helming people-to-people contact programmes.

Amit Shah, Home Minister. The BJP has taken its campaign literally to the people’s doorsteps, with Shah himself helming people-to-people contact programmes.

Chief Minister  Pushkar Singh Dhami addressing a press conference in Dehradun on January 12. The BJP is trying to sell the idea that the same party at the Centre and in the State can function as two engines to expedite development.

Chief Minister Pushkar Singh Dhami addressing a press conference in Dehradun on January 12. The BJP is trying to sell the idea that the same party at the Centre and in the State can function as two engines to expedite development.

Both the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party and the opposition Congress in Uttarakhand are trying to woo the electorate, especially the youth and women, with populist rhetoric.

With elections scheduled forFebruary 14 in Uttarakhand, political parties have swung into action, competing with one another in promising sops to people. The Congress is hoping to make a comeback in the hill State, which has a history of not returning the ruling party to office—the BJP (Bharatiya Janata Party) this time. It has released the ‘Swabhimaan Pratigya Patra’, a manifesto aimed at enticing youths and women with the promise to generate 4,00,000 jobs and reserve 40 per cent police postings for women.

The BJP has perhaps realised that messages aimed at polarising voters on communal lines—such as the recent accusation by its A-lister leaders that the Congress is planning to set up a Muslim university in the State—may not be enough to woo voters. The party has been delaying the release of its manifesto, with insiders indicating that a major rehash of the document is under way after the Congress dished out a populist manifesto aimed at rallying the under-35 electorate behind it.

Congress’ manifesto

Congress general secretary Priyanka Gandhi released the party’s manifesto on February 2 at a virtual rally that was live-streamed across the State’s 70 constituencies. She told the women voters: “It is the women of Uttarakhand, especially in the hilly areas, who have to do the maximum hard work. They have to work in the fields as well as manage the household. During the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, they suffered the most but hardly any political party talks about them. Our party promises to work for their empowerment, if voted to power.”

The Congress’ sudden deployment of Priyanka Gandhi is seen as its way of countering the BJP’s Hindutva-centred electioneering. The party seems to believe that that the buzz surrounding her gender-centred campaigns so far in Uttar Pradesh and her image of being an intrepid, untainted politician will appeal to not only women but also diverse groups of youths, thus preventing the BJP from turning the election into a communal contest.

Also read: BJP's dubious double engine

The need for such a strategy is heightened in the context of the controversial incidents in Haridwar between December 17 and 19, when members of right-wing Hindu organisations and various “religious leaders” assembled for an event they named “dharma sansad”. Some of them relayed explicit hate messages against Muslims, going to the extent of asking the police, politicians and people in general to arm themselves against the minority community. Uttarakhand Chief Minister Pushkar Singh Dhami’s reluctance to take action against the hatemongers strengthened the perception that the BJP was trying to get electoral mileage out of a polarised environment. It also amplified the Congress’ restlessness.

In this context, the party’s manifesto seems to be an effort to not let the electorate’s focus shift from the issues that matter. The party has promised to cap the price of a cooking gas cylinder at Rs.500, raise the salary of anganwadi workers by 150 per cent, allow free travel for women in State transport, fill 57,000 vacancies in various government departments within a year of assuming office, set up the State’s “first sports university”, and withdraw cases filed against farmers during the protests against the now-repealed farm laws.

After launching the manifesto, Priyanka Gandhi said: “The present government did nothing in five years. We still see only the work done by our government which preceded it. They did nothing because they did not have the intention. The Congress can bring change but only if you wake up to fight for your rights and for the future of your children.”

BJP’s pitch

The BJP, on the other hand, is trying to sell the idea of a “double-engine” government, arguing that the same party at the Centre and in the State can function as two engines to expedite development. The party has taken its campaign literally to the people’s doorsteps, with Home Minister Amit Shah himself helming people-to-people contact programmes. On January 28, he launched a diatribe against the grand old party at a gathering of ex-servicemen in Rudraprayag district. “Whenever the Congress has come to power in Uttarakhand, it has failed to work for the development of the State. It only indulged in corruption. But the BJP has always worked for the development of the State and welfare of its people. It is because of this that the Congress governments have been described by people as failed ones while that of the BJP is termed as a double-engine government for its determination to work for development,” he said.

Being aware of the fact that Uttarakhand sends a considerable number of people to the armed forces, Amit Shah attempted to portray the Congress as a party that was indifferent to national security, while applauding Narendra Modi’s government for prioritising the modernisation of the defence machinery. He told the defence veterans: “It was Prime Minister Modi who gave modern rifles and new bulletproof jackets to soldiers after decades. During the UPA [United Progressive Alliance] tenure, the defence budget was reduced every year with only Rs.2 lakh crore alloted in 2013-14, which was increased to Rs.4.78 lakh crore in 2021-22. Prime Minister Narendra Modi implemented the One Rank One Pension scheme, which the Congress government had failed to implement even after passing its three generations.”

Also read: A sticky wicket in the west

The BJP’s thrust is on grassroots campaigning by convening as many as 10 meetings at every booth in Uttarakhand ahead of the polling day. It is also attempting to mire the Congress in controversies surrounding religion and national security. Recently, Congress leader Aqeel Ahmed stated that the Congress’ campaign head and former Chief Minister Harish Rawat had given him his word to set up a Muslim university in the State. The BJP’s top leaders and their Internet army seized the opportunity to accuse the Congress of appeasement politics. Chief Minister Pushkar Singh Dhami said, “The Congress has always upheld a tradition of appeasement. While in power it toyed with the idea of declaring holidays on Friday. Today they may be talking about chaar dham [four Hindu piligrim sites in the State], but the people can see through their posturings.” Later, Aqeel Ahmed clarified that though he did discuss the possibility of establishing a Muslim university, the party or Harish Rawat had not made any commitment to him.

Wooing the Brahmin community

Significantly, the Congress itself is pitching for soft Hindutva in a State popularly called “ dev bhoomi ”, or the land of the gods. In a bid to woo Brahmin voters, Harish Rawat announced a commission would be set up to assess the economic and social condition of the community. “If voted to power, we will constitute a commission to study the socio-economic condition of Brahmins and launch welfare schemes on the basis of the findings,” the former Chief Minister said at a press briefing in Dehradun on February 2. He reminded the community that it was the Congress government that had in the past started a pension scheme for teerth purohits (priests of important temples), which was later suspended by the BJP government (and then restored under public pressure).

The Congress’ overtures to Brahmins did not end there. “We will also install idols of Lord Parashuram at all religious centres of the State,” Harish Rawat added. The efforts are already paying off. Bhriguvanshi Pandit Ashutosh Pandey, president of the Rashtriya Brahmin Yuvajan Sabha, recently announced his support for the Congress. “We have decided to support the Congress in the Assembly elections because of their promise to set up a commission to study the socio-economic condition of Brahmins. If needed, we will organise processions to expose the BJP, which had won with the help of Brahmins but left them in the lurch,” he told the media recently. Brahmins, who account for 10 per cent of the State’s population, are decisive in several constituencies.

Defections

Continued defections from the BJP to the Congress is also limning the BJP’s image as a sinking ship. On February 2, the party’s senior leader Narendra Nagar became the latest to switch to the Congress. Om Gopal Rawat, another of its leaders, also joined the Congress as he was upset with the ticket distribution. The defections began in October last year, with then State Minister Yashpal Arya and his son jumping to the Congress fold. In the first week of January more defections followed, with Deepak Bijalwan and Malchandra of the BJP also shifting allegiance to the Congress. Malchandra is a former MLA from Karauli.

Another setback for the BJP came with the expulsion of Harak Rawat from the party following his mutinous public posturing. He was expelled from Dhami’s Cabinet and also as a primary member of the BJP (for six years) on January 16 for anti-party activities. Soon after his removal, Harak Rawat rejoined the Congress.

Also read: An open field

With less than a fortnight to go for the election, the situation has become worse, with the BJP on February 3 expelling at least six rebels who filed nominations against the party’s official candidates. Those who were expelled included Rajkumar Thukral, the incumbent legislator from Rudrapur. The other five are Tika Prasad Maikhuri (Karanprayag), Mahavir Singh Rangad (Dhanaulti), Jitendra Negi (Doiwala), Dhirendra Chauhan (Kotdwar) and Manoj Shah (Bhimtal).

The BJP’s only solace is the fact that the Congress also is faced with intra-party mutinies, though only to a lesser extent. On February 1, the Congress expelled four leaders from the party’s basic membership for six years. Sanjay Negi (Ramnagar), Sandya Dalakoti (Lalkua), M.S. Kandari (Rudraprayag) and Sanjay Dobhal (Yamunotri) faced the party’s ire after senior leaders failed to persuade them from withdrawing their independent nominations against the Congress’ official candidates.

What the polls say

As the contest gets keen, several opinion polls show the Congress either marginally ahead or tied with the BJP. India TV’s recent opinion poll predicted 33-35 seats each for the BJP and the Congress and one percentage point lead for the Congress in terms of popular vote. According to its opinion poll, while the BJP is expected to bag 45 per cent of the votes, the Congress would be ahead with 46 per cent.

The ABP News-C Voter survey also indicated a tie, giving 31-37 of the State’s 70 seats going to the BJP, and 30-36 seats to the Congress. However, the Times Now-VETO opinion poll predicted a landslide victory for the BJP with 44-50 seats, while limiting the Congress to 12-15.