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An uphill campaign

Print edition : Feb 02, 2002 T+T-

The Congress(I) tries to recover lost ground in Uttaranchal even as the Bharatiya Janata Party attempts to stave off an anti-incumbency vote in the February 14 elections.

THE first elections to the 70-member Uttaranchal Assembly on February 14 will witness a direct contest between the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party and the Congress(I). While the BJP will seek to retain its voter base, the Congress(I), its only rival of any relevance in the fledgling State, is making a serious bid to come back to power in the region which, a decade ago, was its stronghold.

Having nothing much to lose in the bargain, the Congress is already basking in the prospect of forming the government - to the extent of being complacent at times. On the other hand, the BJP, which expected the election to be a cakewalk, is grappling with hitherto unforeseen problems.

The foremost problem facing the BJP is a horde of rebel candidates. The denial of the ticket to several sitting legislators has given rise to widespread discontent, so much so that some 20 rebels are now determined to defeat the respective official nominee. Seven sitting MLAs, including two Ministers, have announced their intent to contest as independents, while 14 others, mostly from the Tehri region, have stated their plan to the respective BJP candidates.

The BJP has denied the ticket to four Ministers - Transport Minister Tilak Raj Behar, Minister of State for Rural Development and Rural Engineering Gyan Chand, Forest and Environment Minister Mohan Singh Rawat 'Goanwaasi' and Minister of State attached to the Chief Minister's Office Nirupama Gaur. Behar has already announced his resignation and is negotiating with the Congress(I) for the ticket, and Gyan Chand is contesting as an independent from Dhanaulti constituency. Rajendra Shah, the BJP MLA from Mussoorie, has filed his nomination papers to contest as an independent from Rishikesh. The Tehri region, which is represented in the Lok Sabha by the erstwhile king Manvendra Shah, has more than 14 rebel candidates, mostly supporters of Shah who were angry that his nominees were not accommodated. They are all planning either to contest as rebels or sabotage the official candidates' prospects in other ways.

"They will not win even one of the 14 seats. We will dig their grave in this region," declared Nathilal Nautiyal, a Shah supporter from Pratapnagar, who was especially agitated that Col. (retd.) P.D. Kauriyal, who had joined the party three months ago, was given the ticket. "Those who flexed their attache power (the reference being to money) have been given the ticket," Nautiyal complained. Resentment is brewing in the Almora region as well over a dozen seats. Seven party office-bearers have resigned and many of them are contesting as rebels.

Sulking in his hotel room in Dehra Dun, Gyan Chand wondered aloud on what basis he was denied the ticket. "If the allegation of cross-voting was one, then they have adopted double standards. Lakhiram Joshi (another MLA) faced similar charges, yet he has been given the ticket for Narendra Nagar. Suresh Arya, similarly under cloud, has been compensated with his wife Bina Arya being nominated from Sitarganj. I have been a committed worker for the past several years and have a massive support base, so I fail to understand why I was denied the ticket," he said. Four new constituencies have been created out of Dhanaulti, the seat which Gyan Chand represents. Asserting that none of the four constituencies will elect BJP candidates, he said: "I will contest as an independent. I cannot disappoint my supporters."

The presence of a large number of rebel candidates can go against the party, but BJP spokesman Devendra Bhasin, who is also the party's media committee chairman, put up a brave face saying that it was a natural reaction from those who have been denied the ticket. But the signs of trouble are too stark to be ignored. The usually docile paharis (hill people) have taken to the streets and the consequences of the agitation could be disastrous for the party. On January 19, angry supporters of Rajendra Shah stormed the party headquarters in Dehra Dun and gheraoed State party president Puran Chandra Sharma and the newly appointed general secretary, Balraj Passi, shouting slogans and abuses. Eventually the police chased them away.

The BJP's main opponent, the Congress(I), is also faced with similar dissent over ticket distribution, but to a lesser degree. Satpal Maharaj, former Union Minister and a prominent leader from the Garhwal region, threatened to resign from the party protesting against the pattern of allocation of seats. Although Maharaj had been sulking ever since Harish Rawat was made the State party president, the decision to field former BJP Minister Harak Singh Rawat from Lansdown, Maharaj's parliamentary constituency, provoked him to send his resignation letter to the high command. Satpal Maharaj said it was unfortunate that tainted people, whose criminal antecedents and connections were no secret, were given the ticket while deserving candidates were ignored. Maharaj is known to be close to the Congress veteran from the hills, N.D. Tiwari, and the leadership scrambled to placate him. Maharaj withdrew his resignation after his favoured candidate, including his wife, were accommodated in the list.

The other major problem that the BJP faces is the anti-incumbency factor. When the hill State was formed in 2000, big promises were made and people's expectations swelled. But the government failed to deliver, which created discontent. The State so far has no industrial policy, no sanctions for district plans, no Annual Plan, no announced stand on the 10th Five Year Plan and no road map for development. Several existing rice and sugar mills are on the verge of closure; some of the existing 67 Industrial Training Institutes are either closed or are facing closure for lack of grants; over 20,000 government functionaries, who opted for the Uttar Pradesh service, continue to be posted in Uttaranchal, blocking fresh employment generation.

Besides, the creation of the State was accompanied by its usual share of problems - inadequate infrastructure, a sudden influx of outsiders and associated law and order problems. These issues could greatly embarrass the BJP in the run-up to the elections. There are other factors too which, although beyond the control of the State government, are likely to go against the ruling party. Price rise for example.

There are larger issues too, but the issue that has gripped the psyche of the hill people is the coffin controversy. Since the State has a considerable number of serving and retired defence personnel, the issue has acquired a special emotive appeal, and the Congress(I) is using it to the hilt. Posters, apparently released by an ex-servicemen's cell, depicting the coffin of a soldier being carried, with a slogan, sena khoon bahati hai, sarkar dalali khaati hai (while the soldiers shed their blood, the government is busy earning kickbacks) have sprung up all over Dehra Dun. Some of the posters also list irregularities highlighted by the Comptroller and Auditor-General in its report on defence purchases during the Kargil war. The BJP has complained to the Election Commission that the model code of conduct has been violated on two counts: one, the posters showed the actual coffin of a soldier, and second, they did not have a printline.

The Congress merely enjoyed the BJP's discomfiture. "It is my information that the BJP leaders are having nightmares. These coffins will dig the grave of the BJP in Uttaranchal," declared Congress media committee chairman Surendra Kumar. According to him, there are other scams, especially the UTI (Unit Trust of India) scam, that will go against the BJP because this State has a substantial salaried class and a money order economy.

The BJP's campaign has been designed to highlight the very creation of Uttaranchal as a major victory. It is also banking on a hi-tech campaign through video-mounted raths (chariots) which will travel to the remotest of areas carrying the party's message to the people.

The Congress(I)'s high-voltage optimism, however, appears misplaced at this stage in view of the fact that the party machinery is yet to gear up adequately for the task. The Congress Bhavan wore a deserted look even as the list of candidates was being announced in Delhi. Congressmen, however, are in an upbeat mood. "Our manifesto, in the form of Hardwar sankalp, is ready and our campaigning has begun. We are slated to form the government this time," declared Surendra Kumar. If the Congress indeed forms the government, it will be more because of a lack of alternatives rather than a clear mandate for it to rule.

The predominantly upper caste electorate, mainly Thakurs and Brahmins, has ensured that the Samajwadi Party and the Bahujan Samaj Party have only a very limited influence (in not more than a couple of constituencies) in the plains.

One factor that can improve the Congress(I)'s prospects here is the fact that the party has reached a tacit understanding with prominent regional parties. The five-party front led by the Uttarakhand Kranti Dal, which includes the Communist Party of India, becomes relevant because regionalism - hills versus plains or pahari versus non-pahari - is set to emerge as a major issue. "We paharis want Uttaranchal to be a real hill State. We fought for the State, and faced bullets, yet the BJP imposed on us a non-pahari (Nityanand Swami) as the first Chief Minister, an outsider (Surjit Singh Barnala) as the first Governor, and we will not forgive them," said Bal Chand Unniyal, a 'pony-wallah' in Mussoorie.

Although the damage has been repaired to a great extent by making Bhagat Singh Koshyari Chief Minister, he has not been in office for too long to make much impact. Although Koshyari is confident of coming back to power with an absolute majority ("we will win 40 plus seats on the strength of our performance," he says), the task does not look that easy. The odds are stacked heavily against the BJP.