Uphill task

Published : Oct 07, 2011 00:00 IST

B.C. KHANDURI, GREETED by his predecessor Ramesh Pokhriyal Nishank (left) and other BJP leaders after he was sworn in on September 11. - PTI

B.C. KHANDURI, GREETED by his predecessor Ramesh Pokhriyal Nishank (left) and other BJP leaders after he was sworn in on September 11. - PTI

The BJP, seeking to blunt the corruption charges against its government, effects a leadership change ahead of the Assembly elections.

DESPERATE times call for desperate measures. Ahead of senior party leader L.K. Advani's rath yatra against corruption, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) began a major cleansing operation in Uttarakhand to project a clean image before the Assembly elections, which are due in six months. In the process, the party's central leadership effected a surprising leadership change in the State. Chief Minister Ramesh Pokhriyal Nishank, who is allegedly involved in a number of corruption scandals, was replaced with Maj. Gen. (retd) Bhuvan Chandra Khanduri.

Ironically, Khanduri was removed from office in 2009 after the party lost all the five Lok Sabha seats in the parliamentary elections. Khanduri accepted responsibility for the debacle and offered to resign, hoping that the routine offer would be rejected by the central leadership and he would be asked to continue in office. But his resignation was accepted immediately. Subsequently, the party chose Nishank as the consensus Chief Minister after much wrangling within the legislature party. Clash of personalities came out in the open when Bhagat Singh Koshyari, former Chief Minister and Rajya Sabha member whose claim to the post was ignored following the 2007 Assembly elections in favour of Khanduri, staked his claim once again. But it was strongly opposed by Khanduri. Nishank then emerged as the consensus candidate, acceptable to both Khanduri and Koshyari.

However, Khanduri and Koshyari soon joined hands to destabilise Nishank. Although this came to the party leadership's notice, it tried to ignore it for two years. Meanwhile, the Nishank government came under a cloud of corruption charges. Although nothing was proved, the corruption charges stuck, and the general perception was that Nishank had turned out to be extremely inefficient in curbing corruption in virtually all departments of the government. Continuous feedback to this effect reached the party top brass, which after a survey to ascertain the mood at the grass roots came to the conclusion that the party would be defeated in the Assembly elections under Nishank's leadership. The people were disgusted. Nothing, not even routine transfers and promotions, were being done without the exchange of money. It was disgusting, a senior BJP leader told Frontline. Moreover, with Advani announcing a rath yatra against corruption, it became untenable to let Nishank continue as Chief Minister, and we decided to replace him with Khanduri. Khanduri may have become unpopular but he was not corrupt. He has a clean image, the senior leader said.

What is surprising is that the BJP has reposed faith in the leadership of the man who presided over the party's debacle in the 2009 Lok Sabha elections. Will Khanduri ensure the party's victory in the Assembly elections? State BJP leaders concede that there is nothing to indicate that Khanduri will produce a turnaround. But if the central leadership has seen merit in installing him we will have faith in its judgment and cooperate with him, a State BJP leader said.

Khanduri had earned a good reputation as Surface Transport Minister in the National Democratic Alliance government at the Centre. But as Chief Minister during 2007-09, he became extremely arrogant and inaccessible even to party workers. He became totally dependent on a coterie of officers and would not consult even his senior ministerial colleagues on important issues. He was just not listening to anyone. He had become so overconfident that he refused to heed all sane advice. It became very frustrating because no work was done during his tenure, said Lt. Gen. (retd.) T.P.S. Rawat, who quit the BJP on August 27. Rawat joined the BJP in June 2007 after resigning as Congress MLA. Khanduri contested from the Dhumakot Assembly seat vacated by Rawat in 2007, and the latter contested unsuccessfully from the Pauri Lok Sabha seat vacated by Khanduri. The BJP saw this manoeuvre at that time as a big victory for it in the hill State. But Rawat raised the banner of revolt and floated the Uttarakhand Raksha Morcha in early August to start an anti-corruption crusade against both the United Progressive Alliance government at the Centre and the Nishank government in the State.

Rawat had held important portfolios in the N.D. Tiwari-led Congress government and had a clean reputation as a Minister. He hopes to make his electoral foray in the upcoming Assembly elections. He told Frontline that once he became a Minister he realised that both the BJP and the Congress were equally corrupt and had no concern for people's welfare. The only difference between the two was that whenever charges were levelled against someone in the Congress government, Tiwariji would hold an inquiry and try to ascertain the truth. Whereas in the BJP nobody paid heed. I personally wrote to both Nitin Gadkari [party president] and Advani informing them about the corruption in the State and urged them to take action, but they just ignored my pleas, he said. In his resignation letter dated August 27, addressed to Gadkari, Rawat raised the issue of corruption in the State.

With so many disgruntled elements within the party, will a leadership change actually help? State party leaders are unwilling to talk about it. The BJP's national general secretary Ravi Shankar Prasad, who has been in charge of the State since 2007, said the change was part of our political strategy. Without elaborating on the strategy, he said, It is true that we replaced him two years ago but now we have an extremely positive feedback about him. Every party is entitled to reassess its situation in politics and two years is a long time for such reassessment.

On being asked what exactly the charges against Nishank were, he said, None whatsoever. He refused to answer the question whether replacing a Chief Minister on the basis of corruption charges against his government would not bolster the opposition onslaught.

Ravi Shankar Prasad said Khanduri would be the chief ministerial candidate in the Assembly elections. Of course, he will be the chief ministerial candidate since he is already the Chief Minister and we hope to come back to power with a thumping majority, he said.

If the trend in the 2009 Lok Sabha elections, when the Congress won all the seats, is any indication, the BJP's hopes may be dashed to the ground. Besides, a disgruntled Nishank could prove a spoiler. Nishank, who is licking his wounds, has refused to discuss his future plans with anyone. Sources close to him revealed that the party offered him the post of Speaker or a senior position in the national party organisation with the promise that he would be given a big role in the State, but he has turned down these offers and has kept to himself, preferring to meet only his close aides. When contacted, he told this correspondent that he was still to come to terms with recent events and was in no position to talk about his future plans. Party insiders see this is as a dangerous sign as Nishank wields a lot of influence at the grass roots.

Clearly, a tough task awaits Khanduri, not only to deliver clean governance in the next five months but also to ensure that internal feuds do not affect the party's prospects.

Khanduri, who assumed charge on September 11, does not want to be bogged down by non-issues and wants to concentrate on improving the party's image. He concedes that he faces a huge challenge but is not daunted. Frankly, what happened in the past, who conspired against whom, is irrelevant now. If the party has placed its confidence in me and has faith in my leadership, we can win the elections. My job right now is to ensure this. My approach will be to reach out to the people and convince them that we are genuinely concerned about their welfare and we are seeking their support not merely for votes. The party did some good work in 2007, and the people need to be made aware of this. As for looking into the corruption charges of the previous government, the case is in court and the law will take its own course. There is no need for a separate investigation by the government.

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