In Uttaranchal, the Congress seems set to capitalise on the Bharatiya Janata Party government's non-performance.
IF the general public perception and mood are any guide, the Bharatiya Janata Party is in serious trouble in Uttaranchal, which will have its first Assembly polls on February 14. The public mood is decidedly against the ruling party and is veering towards the Congress, which the hill people had dumped in electoral terms in 1989 and ignored since then. The reasons for this change are not far to seek. Non-performance by the BJP government, which took the reins after the creation of the State over a year ago, has left people thoroughly disappointed.
In village after village it is the same story - incompetence and corruption of and non-performance by BJP functionaries and government officials. "We rejected the Congress in favour of the BJP in 1989 because the Congress stand on the creation of a new State was ambiguous. We wholeheartedly supported the BJP, but what have we got in return? Only promises that have not been fulfilled, not even when there was the chance to fulfil them," said R.S. Rawat from Pauri Garhwal, who was until recently a government official. He resigned from service because he was disappointed with the BJP government and its policies and joined the Congress. "We were fooled by the BJP from 1989 to 2002. Now is the time for us to settle scores," he said, even as those surrounding him nodded in agreement.
Khajan Singh's dhaba at Lal Tibba in the snow-bound Nagrasu village near Mussoorie has a poster showing Congress president Sonia Gandhi, hands folded in a namaste, and her daughter Priyanka Vadra, cheerily waving. The poster symbolises the change of mood. Said Khajan Singh: "This government has done nothing for us, now our hope is on the Congress. The Congress has done something for us in the past." He claimed that in his part of the State at least a dozen villages had unanimously decided to vote the Congress.
In 25 villages in Tehri district people are totally against the BJP and have decided to vote the Congress. "The BJP will be routed in this area," said Ram Singh of Lundour village near Mussoorie. He belongs to the growing number of educated unemployed in the State, who have lost hope of getting relief from this government. The only son of poor parents, Ram Singh has an M.A. degree but has been unemployed for the last four years. His father, a farmer, is a broken man now. He had to curtail the education of his three daughters so that the son could get a decent higher education and become a "bada officer". Ram Singh now works as a photographer to make ends meet; he takes pictures of tourists and treks miles to deliver them.
Writer Ruskin Bond, who has made Mussoorie his home, felt that if meeting people's aspirations was a yardstick of success, then this government was a miserable failure. "This government has not worked for the people. The people are unhappy with it. They have struggled to see the creation of their own State and, obviously, they had aspirations, which have been ignored by the government," he said, confessing that being an apolitical person he was unable to say which party the people would vote for.
THE Congress seems to have judged the people's mood right and is harping on the government's failure to get a special package for the State despite there being a BJP-led government at the Centre. Besides, realising that over 50 per cent of the State's population is associated, directly or indirectly, with the defence forces, the party is highlighting the coffin controversy, the questionable defence procurements at the time of the Kargil war, and the National Democratic Alliance (NDA) government's wishy-washy stand on these scams as exemplified by the re-induction of George Fernandes as Defence Minister. These points have acquired emotive overtones in the hills and could prove decisive.
The BJP, taking into account the public anger against the non-performance of its government, shifted the focus of its campaign from the government's achievements to the role the party played in the creation of the State. "Our slogan now is: 'We have given you the State, we will give you good governance too,' " said Devendra Bhasin, the BJP spokesman in Dehra Dun. "We will make the people realise that it is only the BJP that genuinely wants development in the State." Six 'video chariots', three each for Garhwal and Kumaon, took this message to all parts of the State.
The campaigning by party stalwarts, including Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee, Home Minister, L.K. Advani, Human Resource Development Minister M.M. Joshi, and party president Jana Krishnamurthy, was made tougher by the presence of around 20 rebels, including two Ministers and a Mandi Parishad chairman. The party expelled 18 rebels from its primary membership and warned the others of action. The focus of the rebels' campaign was on the corruption, incompetence and non-performance of the government. The BJP spokesman, who dismissed these charges, said: "The people supported them because they contested on the BJP platform. On their own they can become nothing. Like Kalyan Singh, they, too, will have no political significance." However, in constituencies like Dhanoulti, Rishikesh and Laxmanchowk, people spoke highly of the individual worth of the rebels in their areas and said that they would vote for the individual rather than the party.
Compounding the BJP's problems are its allies, who are contesting more than a dozen seats on their own in various parts of the State. The Lok Jan Shakti of Ram Vilas Paswan, the Shakti Dal of Maneka Gandhi, and the Janata Dal(U) of Sharad Yadav have all fielded nominees against BJP candidates. Though none of these parties has a substantial base in the State, they can damage the BJP's prospects. Though the BJP spokesman does not attach any significance to the presence of the party's allies in the contest, the fact is that it has punctured its claim that only the BJP was capable of taking allies along and giving a stable government.
The Congress, realising that it could gain from the BJP's predicament, roped in all its Chief Ministers for an all-out campaign. Thus, telling the voters how a Congress government meant all-round development were Digvijay Singh of Madhya Pradesh, Ajit Jogi of Chhattisgarh, Ashok Gehlot of Rajasthan and Sheila Dixit of Delhi. But the star campaigner was Sonia Gandhi, and Congress strategists took care to ensure that she addressed an equal number of meetings in Garhwal and Kumaon regions, keeping in view the people's sensitivity of these issues.
"The response to Soniaji has been tremendous. We have sensed a positive swing in our favour all over the State. We are sure of forming the government with no fewer than 45 seats," said Dhirendra Pratap, general secretary and chief media coordinator of the State Congress. He was confident that the anti-incumbency factor and a definite wave in favour of the Congress would carry the party back to power in the State. "Even in constituencies like Kuffkot, Laxmanchaowk and Dehrakhas, where BJP stalwarts such as Chief Minister Bhagat Singh Koshiyari, former Chief Minister Nityanand Swami and senior leader Harbans Kapoor respectively are contesting, the results will be shocking," said Pratap. He added that Kuffkot, Koshiyari's constituency, had no primary health centre, power supply or roads. This was despite the fact that the BJP was a dominant force in the area for the last 13 years, he said.
However, for the Congress, too, it is going to be a long haul. It can reach the post only if it reaches the people. "We are doing door-to-door campaigning. The thrust is more on personal interaction," said Pratap. If the current trend persists, the Congress will stand to gain. It seems politics has come full circle in the hills.